Democrats have exactly four months to solve the country’s problems before the government grinds to a halt again.
Come 2022, politicians will shift into reelection mode, with some making a big show of dropping messaging bills and others making a big show of stomping all over those bills. After November, Republicans will likely gerrymander their way into Congressional majorities, which will put President Joe Biden and the Democrats on the defensive for the next few years. Then it's the 2024 presidential election season, which nobody wants to think about right now.
Democrats hope to forestall that dismal future by passing Biden’s $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” budget through the reconciliation process, which would skirt the Senate's filibuster and improve hundreds of millions of American lives in material ways. The "blueprint" budget the Senate passed this week includes major investments in housing, health care, child care, green jobs, wildfire prevention, education, paid sick leave—the list goes on—all paid for with taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
Seattle's very own Congresswoman, Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, drew up the strategy to push the bill through a chaotic House and a recalcitrant Senate. She convinced leadership to link the fates of the budget bill and the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill in the hopes of actually delivering on progressive legislation. The Stranger sat down with Jayapal outside a cafe in South Lake Union to ask how the hell she did it, and whether she thinks it’ll work.
You were the architect behind this whole reconciliation budget / infrastructure bill two-step. How did you get leadership to buy into this strategy? Could you peel back the curtain a little?
Well, we wanted the whole [bipartisan infrastructure bill and reconciliation bill] to be one package. Then it became clear that wasn't working out, and so I came up with the strategy of saying, 'Okay, you want the bipartisan bill. Fine. We want the reconciliation bill. The two have to move together. And, by the way, we’re not going to move the bipartisan bill without the reconciliation bill.'
People in leadership were not happy about that, and they said things like, 'You’re not trusting the President to get the agenda done.' I said things like, 'We’re not going to pass the bipartisan bill, take away all the momentum, and then wait another year only to have everything fall through. Everything stops at the end of this year. Nothing gets passed once we get past December.'
That was not well-received. But we did a whip count of our caucus to show our muscle, and we got over 60% of our caucus saying the same thing. [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi is a vote counter above everything else, and she also has a legacy here, and when she realized that it wasn’t going to happen without the two going together—and we made that clear to the White House as well—then Pelosi got behind the strategy several weeks later, then [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer said it, and then it became the Democratic position.
But you need 50 votes in the Senate to pass it, and both Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin have come out and called the price tag too high. Have you spoken with Sinema and Manchin recently? What do they want?
My contact has been with the White House, with [Biden chief of staff] Ron Klain, with Chuck Schumer, and of course with the Speaker, because Manchin and Sinema aren’t necessarily going to be moved by me.
The White House has been clear with me that they’re really committed to this, and that’s why when people push back against this and say progressives are going to stop everything and tank the infrastructure bill, I say, 'No, everybody who votes against the $3.5 trillion is voting against the Democratic agenda. They’re voting against the President’s agenda.'
I think they’re going to say what they’re going to say, but at the end of the day, they want us to pass the bipartisan bill and the reconciliation bill.
How much do you think conservative Democrats will knock off that $3.5 trillion budget to get this through, and around which policies do you think you have the most leverage?
I really don’t know how we can do what we’re talking about doing for less than 3.5. But we’re not focusing so much on the number because… these are all investments that pay for themselves. The net cost of this thing isn’t going to be the top-line number, and if we got our way it would actually be zero because of raising corporate and high-income earner taxes substantially.
Within the reconciliation bill there are things that are harder and things that are easier. A lot of the clean electricity standards, the move away from natural gas, the amount of money for the Climate Civilian Corps, lowering the Medicare eligibility age…that’s going to be the challenge.
But I'm not thinking it’s going to come down from 3.5. Our leverage is in the two pieces going together. There are things we don’t love in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, there are things that those conservative Democrats don’t love in the reconciliation bill, but at the end of the day the two have to move together.
What are the chances of securing a pathway to citizenship in the reconciliation budget? Seems like that might be controversial, too.
We have unanimous support for a pathway to citizenship in the Democratic party—the question will be who’s excluded. The money is in there for the largest number of people we think we can get, which is like five-and-a-half million people, but whether or not the parliamentarian agrees [to allow an immigration measure in a budget reconciliation bill] is a different question. There’s precedent for the parliamentarian to rule this in order; that’s the good news. But we’re essentially at the mercy of one unelected woman’s decision to decide the fates of millions of people.
The budget framework calls for $332 billion for "public housing, the Housing Trust Fund, housing affordability and equity and community land trusts." What were you fighting for in the budget in terms of increasing the supply of housing?
I feel good about the housing piece. What’s in the Senate budget resolution is actually more than what Biden put in, but not quite as much as what we pushed for.
Have you encouraged Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to use the FEMA money to get chronically homeless people into hotels?
Yes, and our staff has worked with her staff on this issue of the FEMA dollars. It’s been frustrating because we don’t see what the problem is.
[A staffer chimed in to say, "They were just granted some FEMA funding for the non-congregate housing on Tuesday. $1.9 million or something."]
Originally they told us they didn’t think they were going to get the money, and they didn't want to spend without FEMA being clear that they were going to get the money. Now we got them the money. So now they’re saying we’re not sure if this is reimbursement or if this is new, so now we’re trying to work through that issue.
Outside of the budget, you’re advocating for canceling up to $50,000 in student debt. What do you say to those who argue that the money would be better used on antipoverty measures?
The federal government profiting off of people paying off student loans makes no sense whatsoever. And we’ve done studies that show if you cancel debt it goes right back into the community. People buy houses, they buy cars, and so this is an antipoverty measure.
Especially if you only cancel $50,000, we have lots of studies that show that’s primarily low-income folks of color, Black and brown folks who disproportionally carry debt for longer periods, and so it is a racial equity measure, and a racial wealth gap measure as well.
What do you think of a vaccine mandate for all Americans with a religious and medical exemption. Are you pushing for that at all?
I really believe it’s time for that. I think we have tried to do all these other things to get people to listen to science. A vaccine mandate that listens to science and that has those exemptions I think is the best way to go because it's not just personal choice. You’re not just putting yourself at risk. You’re putting everyone else at risk. And you’re giving the Delta variant and every other variant that comes after it the ability spread.
Redistricting alone will kill the Democratic majority in the House. I know all politics is local, but what’s the winning message for Democrats if they want to retain their majority in 2022?
Deliver for the people.
We made promises. Voters turned out in record numbers—particularly Black, brown, indigenous, and poor and working class voters—and now we have to turn around and make their lives appreciably better, so that when we run next year people say, “Wow, we gave you the House, the Senate, and the White House and you really delivered for us. I have paid leave, I have child care, my student debt is canceled, I have health care.” Those are the things that make people feel differently when they wake up in the morning. That’s our winning message.