Pramila Jayapal Just Called Nancy Pelosi’s Bluff—Now Can She Deliver?

·5 min read
Jose Luis Magana/AP
Jose Luis Magana/AP

There’s a popular backhanded compliment about progressive lawmakers, that they’re great at messaging but just don’t understand legislating. After Thursday’s successful showdown with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, that idea has been put to rest.

Progressives can proudly claim that their unified show of strength, orchestrated by the Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, forced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to abandon a rushed vote on the Senate’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that would have undermined President Biden’s larger, still-unpassed $3.5 trillion Build Back Better package and shafted Americans out of trillions of dollars in critical domestic investment.

The picture isn’t so rosy for a Democratic establishment that has so far failed to use its unified governing power to do much actual governing. Pelosi now must regroup after a rare and embarrassing public retreat. Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are no closer to scraping senatorial barnacles Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema off the ship of state. And the party is moving left with disorienting speed.

Nancy Pelosi Brought a Teddy Bear to a Knife Fight

It’s important to remember how the Democratic Party got here, and why you’re likely to be hearing Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s name a lot more in the coming months.

Jayapal and House progressives made clear in a number of increasingly stark public statements that the Senate must pass Biden’s full $3.5 trillion, 10-year domestic spending bill before the House takes any action on the separate, smaller $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. The Senate, or rather conservative Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, want $2 trillion chopped off the package before they’ll even consider a vote. Oh, and the floor is also lava.

Around 9 p.m. on Thursday, House leadership floated a possible vote within the hour. Jayapal assembled her progressive allies on a conference call and reaffirmed their commitment to passing Biden’s full agenda. Jayapal’s muscular show of lefty unity achieved its intended goal. Facing an insurmountable wall of progressives, Pelosi backed down and, shortly before 11 p.m., conceded that there would be no vote.

The progressives’ successful power play indicates something more fundamental about how quickly the Democratic Party is shifting left. In 2015, Democratic lawmakers would have balked at passing a massive $1.5 trillion spending bill and a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill at the same time. Now that sum is considered too small to be taken seriously—and the left has the votes to protect Democrats from their own disastrous urge to compromise with themselves.

At a rally outside the Capitol on Thursday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez laid out why progressives aren’t interested in compromising with Senate reactionaries on a smaller, stripped-down bill that excludes much of the social spending progressives consider essential.

“Isn’t something better than nothing?” Ocasio-Cortez said. “That might be an easy thing for some of you all to say… but when you only give some, not all, then some people get nothing. Who gets nothing? We get nothing.”

AOC’s fire is emblematic of a new wave of confidence on the resurgent left. And that confidence is deserved: New polling indicates growing numbers of Americans actually want Democrats to swing left on infrastructure spending, undercutting the core argument of Senate conservatives.

AOC Is Winning—Unless Progressives Overplay Their Hand

On Wednesday, the Charleston Gazette-Mail published a poll showing a majority of West Virginians support the progressive call to fund Biden’s Build Back Better agenda by hiking taxes on the cartoonishly rich. And over half of Americans—including many Republicans—support passing both the $1.2 trillion bill and the $3.5 trillion 10-year package.

With polls skewing the right direction, progressives were also bolstered by a rare moment of sustained, positive media coverage. After years regurgitating the centrist screed that progressive Democrats are to blame for all of the party’s ills, influential establishment media outlets like The Washington Post scorched Manchin’s “selfishness” and “rationalizations.” The Week called Manchin’s complaints “dishonest nonsense.” Even former Labor Secretary Robert Reich weighed in, blasting Manchin and Sinema as “corporate Democrats” destroying the Democratic agenda.

It’s hard to paint the left as the enemy when its lawmakers are defending policies a majority of Americans desperately want.

Pelosi’s retreat should be a wake-up call to party leadership. In the end, the much-mythologized “moderates” simply did not have the votes to pass Biden’s infrastructure bill on their own. Any future for the Democratic Party runs through a resurgent progressive wing, and Thursday is a stark reminder that a unified left can successfully redirect the Democratic Party away from a repeat of its catastrophic centrist cave-in on the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

The left’s big victory isn’t without risk. If Manchin and Sinema refuse to budge on their demands for a much slimmer reconciliation bill, House progressives would either need to vote down both measures or back down. Killing both bills leaves progressives without anything to show for their efforts and will be portrayed as ineffectiveness. Backing down would devastate morale internally and squander the Progressive Caucus’ newfound political clout. It’s all or nothing.

But the more acute challenge now rests with the White House, where Biden must now decide how much time to invest in incremental one-on-one chats with Manchin and Sinema and how to mollify a progressive left that just demonstrated it, too, can make its voice heard in sharp-elbowed policy negotiations.

Whichever path Biden chooses, progressives are now an influential voice in a very exclusive room—now it’s time to see if they can guide Biden’s big agenda toward a smooth landing.

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