As the US Congress met in January 2017 to certify Donald Trump’s presidential victory, a new lawmaker rose to object and was quickly gaveled to silence by Vice President Joe Biden, a fellow Democrat, who said, “It’s over.”
These days Representative Pramila Jayapal cannot so easily be dismissed. Now-President Biden was back in the Capitol on Thursday to try to save his domestic agenda, and as leader of the left-wing Congressional Progressive Caucus, Jayapal now has the clout to send trillion-dollar investments in transportation and safety-net programs to passage or down to defeat.
After a meeting of the 95-member group on Thursday, Jayapal gave both bills the green light — with conditions. Jayapal said progressives would eventually vote for both packages but would first need to review the details.
That stance led to an embarrassing short-term loss for Biden and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was forced to put off a hoped-for Thursday vote on the infrastructure bill. With a 220-212 majority in the House and a largely unified Republican opposition, Democrats can afford few defections.
Progressives have said for months that they would back the infrastructure bill only after they have voted on the social-policy bill, and they showed no signs of yielding that position.
“There are too many no votes for the vote to pass today,” Jayapal said. “We do need the text and we do need the vote on both bills in the House at the same time.”
Born in Chennai, India, Jayapal came to the United States to attend Georgetown University and worked as a nonprofit executive and activist before winning election to Congress in 2016. Representing a coastal swath of Washington state, she won re-election easily last year with 83% of the vote.
Jayapal, 56, and Biden share many of the same goals. She has pushed Democrats to stick with Biden’s original, expansive vision for his infrastructure and social-spending bills.
At best, she might get a partial victory. The infrastructure bill, which passed the Senate with bipartisan support, spends more money on highways and less on transit than progressives would like. The social-spending plan Biden outlined to Democratic lawmakers on Thursday amounts to roughly half of the original $3.5 trillion he proposed and drops some progressive priorities entirely, such paid family leave and an expansion of the Medicare health plan for the elderly.
However, it still includes free preschool and $555 billion in clean energy tax credits. With narrow margins in both chambers of Congress and Republicans unified in opposition, Biden cannot lose the support of more than a handful of Democrats in the House. In the Senate, he needs to keep all 50 party members on board. At the insistence of centrist Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, Biden has whittled back the social-spending bill and dropped the tax-rate hikes sought by progressives.
Throughout, Jayapal has maintained a high-profile media presence outlining the progressives’ position — a marked contrast to Sinema, who has not publicly laid out her priorities, and Manchin, who has pushed for major cuts to the program.
Neither Manchin nor Sinema have fully endorsed Biden’s latest plan, though the president told House Democrats that it has enough votes to pass the Senate.
Jayapal and other progressives remain skeptical that the two will actually support it.”Our trust has to be in two senators that have not in my opinion been good-faith actors up until this point,” Representative Cori Bush, a member of the progressive caucus, told reporters.
Though she lacks the social-media stardom of other progressives, Jayapal has successfully kept the party’s left flank unified so far as they press to keep Biden’s proposed spending package as ambitious as possible. That is not always an easy task.
“If you know the progressive caucus, we don’t come to agreements very quickly,” Representative Ruben Gallego told reporters. As of Thursday, that statement could apply to congressional Democrats in general.
Jayapal sought to play down the divide, saying Pelosi, not Biden, had called for the Thursday vote. “He said that what we do on these two bills is going to be determinative for how the world sees us,” she told reporters.