Rep. Pramila Jayapal warned her fellow Democratic lawmakers and President Joe Biden on Sunday that failure to deliver their promised social spending and climate agenda could have disastrous political consequences, feeding voter disillusionment and leaving millions of people without badly needed economic aid amid a deadly pandemic.
"Democrats must prove that their voices and their votes matter, and that we can produce tangible economic assistance."
"The Omicron variant is surging as Covid-19 has once again disrupted people’s ability to work, care for children and elders, access medical care, and make ends meet. We simply cannot abandon our vision," Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post as Democrats' Build Back Better agenda hangs in the balance.
Just over a week before Jayapal's opinion piece was published, the U.S. Senate adjourned for the year having passed neither voting rights legislation nor the popular Build Back Better Act, key Democratic agenda items that have been imperiled by corporate-backed Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and other right-wing lawmakers.
Jayapal called Manchin's opposition to the Build Back Better package "a stunning rebuke of his own party's president," noting that the West Virginia Democrat had "committed to the president—who relayed that commitment to House members—that he would support the legislative framework unveiled on October 28."
On the basis of that commitment, Jayapal and a majority of the nearly 100-member CPC agreed to drop their demands for passage of the Build Back Better Act before a bipartisan infrastructure measure supported by Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
In doing so, according to outside critics and members of the so-called "Squad," the CPC gave up crucial leverage and gifted Manchin an opportunity to tank the Build Back Better Act once the $550 billion bipartisan legislation cleared the House.
But Jayapal argued in her op-ed that the decoupling of the two bills came only after most CPC members "believed we had reached our point of maximum leverage—and if we held up infrastructure again, Sen. Manchin would walk away from Build Back Better entirely and possibly even both proposals."
While Jayapal vowed to continue working to salvage the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act via the legislative process, she called on Biden to "use executive action to immediately improve people's lives." In the coming days, Jayapal wrote, the CPC will "release a plan for these actions, including lowering costs, protecting the health of every family, and showing the world that the United States is serious about our leadership on climate action."
"If we use every tool at our disposal to redouble our efforts to deliver for our communities, with the most urgent needs of the American people as our guide, success is possible," she wrote.
The specific elements of the CPC's plan remain to be seen, but progressive lawmakers have vocally pushed Biden since the start of his presidency to use executive action to cancel student debt, slash prescription drug prices, and advance other Democratic priorities. The American Prospect's David Dayen argued last week that Biden has significant leeway to accomplish progressive goals without needing a vote in the closely divided Congress.
"Biden could cancel student debt for 42 million borrowers. He could give millions more workers access to overtime pay," Dayen wrote, outlining just a handful of steps the president has yet to take. "He could deschedule marijuana from the list of controlled substances, effectively legalizing a burgeoning industry. His IRS could end the carried interest loophole that makes private equity so attractive and prohibit private equity management fees."
But Jayapal acknowledged Sunday that executive action won't be enough to accomplish every objective set out in the Build Back Better agenda. Extending the boosted child tax credit (CTC), for instance, will likely require legislation.
"We can't be naive about the difficulty of once again negotiating with someone who has not kept his commitments," Jayapal wrote, referring to Manchin, who reportedly wants to zero out the CTC expansion. "But legislation remains the best path for delivering enduring relief."
"Nor can we underestimate the urgency to act, especially as Covid is surging and so many constituencies—seniors, people of color, working and young people—are disillusioned," she added. "Democrats must prove that their voices and their votes matter, and that we can produce tangible economic assistance... This moment for the Biden administration and Congress can either lead to our greatest failure or our greatest success."