Jayapal now faces the monumental challenge of deciding how to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from a sweeping economic package without sacrificing progressive priorities or blowing up the chance of a deal with moderates.
In an interview with CNN, Jayapal indicated that progressives would be willing to slash the cost of the bill from $3.5 trillion but would be hard-pressed to reduce its scope, the position Pelosi embraced on Tuesday.
Jayapal advocated shortening the length of programs, rather than axing some to save others. The move could be savvy in a town where it’s hard to cut a program once Americans start benefiting from it — but it might fail to win over Democratic moderates worried that it’s just a budget gimmick.
“The majority of our members believe that we should make sure we keep as many of the transformational programs in as possible and shorten the number of years,” Jayapal said.
That position, Jayapal asserted, would allow the House to fulfill the obligations it’s made to the various groups that compose the Democratic coalition: affordable housing for racial minorities and the poor, climate change provisions for the young and Medicare for the elderly, among others.
“We make these promises to people, and they’re expecting us to deliver on them,” Jayapal said. “I do think that we have to recognize that each group of people is struggling in different ways and by including more of these programs, we do provide immediate benefits for everyone.”
“It’s very difficult to pit child care against Medicare, or housing against climate change, or any two of these priorities against each other,” she added.
“This to me is not negotiable,” Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, told reporters.
The progressives’ strategy has angered moderates, who worry that their colleagues’ hardball tactics have put Democrats in swing districts at risk and have jeopardized efforts to pass the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan to invest in America’s roads, bridges and broadband.
“The speaker has historically been very good about getting people to do what she says we need to do. I think we have entered a new realm where people are not as obliging. Notably, it is those to her left that (are) the ongoing issue,” one moderate told CNN on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the caucus dynamics.
The House Democrat said Jayapal “single-handedly moved Pelosi’s position through interview after interview after interview. … I was like, ‘Wait a second, this is not where we are.’ “
“Two trillion in public investment is a hell of a lot of public spending,” Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts, told CNN. “It is pretty extraordinary.”
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 rose quickly within the Congressional Progressive Caucus, sharply criticizing the Trump administration at every turn.
With Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, Jayapal faces a new challenge to enact Biden’s economic agenda, which includes policies popularized by Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. The congresswoman has taken it on by wielding her substantial number of votes to make sure progressive policies remain on the negotiating table.
Brad Bauman, a former Congressional Progressive Caucus executive director, said the group has evolved from defending against cuts to programs like Medicare to advocating for a massive expansion in the role of government.
“It is very, very clear that moderates do not hold a monopoly of power within the Democratic Party anymore,” Bauman said. “Those days have clearly come to an end.”
Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a whip of the progressive caucus, told CNN that Jayapal has been a “persuasive” leader on building the coalition into a “unified” and “cohesive voting bloc.”
Jayapal said Tuesday that it’s hard to negotiate a middle ground when neither Manchin nor Sinema has publicly divulged which programs they want to cut.
“We still don’t have a counterproposal,” Jayapal said.
A message to Biden
Asked if that range was too low, Jayapal told CNN, “Well, that was what I articulated to the President, but we have not drawn red lines because we understand we have to get 50 people on board in the Senate, and all but three on board in the House.”
“It’s more important to make sure that our programs are represented, even if it’s a smaller top-line number and it’s for a shorter period of time, than if you had something that didn’t have our priorities but was more money,” she added.
She and other progressives could also struggle to pass climate provisions that affect the fossil fuel industry, since Manchin has already expressed concerns over how they would hit the energy industry in his state. Jayapal said progressives are “conscious” that “we need everybody” but wanted details from Manchin on how he’d change the structures of proposed programs and tax credits to cut carbon emissions.
Democrats in Congress are facing a time crunch. Pelosi has set an October 31 deadline for the House to pass the roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which would spend hundreds of billions of dollars upgrading roads, bridges, transit, rail, broadband, airports, ports and waterways, and authorize highway programs at risk of expiring that day.
Jayapal said that if the progressive and moderate Democrats don’t reach an agreement, the House could avert that deadline by again passing a short-term bill extending the authorization for surface transportation programs.
“It’s not inconceivable that if we’re not there that we can extend the surface transportation reauthorization,” Jayapal said. “The most important thing is we deliver both bills to the President’s desk, and we are very committed to doing that.”