Pramila Jayapal is one of the most powerful leaders on Capitol Hill right now

Pramila Jayapal is one of the most powerful leaders on Capitol Hill right now
Andrew Harnik/AP

Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal has risen quickly in the ranks of Washington to become a powerful progressive leader on Capitol Hill since first winning her House seat in 2016.

The congresswoman has in recent weeks been at the center of the action as her party works to finalize a sweeping package to expand the social safety net, a key priority for President Joe Biden.

Democrats control extremely narrow majorities in Congress, a dynamic that has empowered moderates as well as progressives and the two factions have become locked in a power struggle. Against that backdrop, the Washington state Democrat has become a prominent voice for the party’s left flank and progressive policies.

As the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Jayapal has fought to get their priorities in the social safety net package that has been strategically leveraged along with a separate $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill in negotiations.

While moderates are focused on passing the infrastructure bill, the priority for progressives is reaching a deal to pass the larger social safety net package, which would address health care, aid to families and the climate crisis.

Fight between progressives and moderates over Biden’s agenda

To ensure the larger package doesn’t get left behind, House progressives, led by Jayapal, have made clear they won’t support the infrastructure bill unless the safety net bill moves in tandem.

That position has dramatically shaped the political landscape that top Democrats have had to contend with and forced House leadership this week to delay a vote on the infrastructure bill for the second time in two months. The outcome highlighted the power of the progressive caucus, which has nearly 100 members making up close to half of the Democratic caucus.

The decision to push back the timeline for the infrastructure vote came at a critical moment for Biden’s agenda. It took place just hours after the President came to Capitol Hill to pitch House Democrats on a framework for his social safety net plan. That legislation has not yet been finalized or publicly signed off on by all Senate Democrats whose votes will be critical to its passage.

“The reality is that while talks around the infrastructure bill lasted months in the Senate, there has only been serious discussion around the specifics of the larger Build Back Better Act in recent weeks, thanks to the Progressive Caucus holding the line and putting both parts of the agenda back on the table,” Jayapal said in a statement on Thursday.

“Now, Congress needs to finish the job and bring both bills to a vote together,” she said.

Jayapal’s rise as a progressive leader

Before coming to represent Seattle in Congress, Jayapal was a state senator and a leading activist for immigrants’, women’s and civil rights. She won her first congressional race in 2016, and was endorsed by Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders in her congressional bid. Once in Congress, she quickly rose within the Congressional Progressive Caucus and became known as a prominent critic of the Trump administration.

Jayapal has the distinction of being the first South Asian American woman to be elected to the House, according to her congressional biography, which states that she was born in India and came to the United States to study at Georgetown University when she was 16-years-old. The biography also says that Jayapal has lived in Indonesia and Singapore as well.

The Democratic lawmaker represents Washington’s seventh congressional district, which includes much of Seattle as well as surrounding areas.

Her caucus has also taken on a higher profile in recent years as Democratic party rising stars have been elected to Congress and joined its ranks, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Jayapal spoke to CNN in an interview earlier this year about her vision for the caucus and how she wants to see it operate as a unified bloc.

“We have to be able to say this is what the progressive caucus stands for, this is what we’re fighting for,” she said. “This is not a litmus test, this is not a purity test, but we do want people to generally be in line with the caucus on votes.”

​​The caucus has remained largely unified as moderates and progressives spar over Biden’s agenda, a dynamic that has strengthened the bloc’s influence and Jayapal’s power amid the high-stakes negotiations.

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