Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal admits to being a wee bit frustrated heading into the holidays. Not merely with Senator Joe Manchin’s decision to torpedo the long-negotiated Build Back Better social infrastructure bill, but also with the way reporters are covering it, and even with some progressive allies’ criticism that Jayapal herself paved the way for the policy meltdown, by agreeing to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill Manchin supported, without simultaneously enacting the ambitious child care, elder care, child tax credit, and environmental legislation that contained policies dearer to progressives’ hearts.
According to that line of reasoning, the six “Squad” members, backed politically by Senator Bernie Sanders (who himself had already voted for the bipartisan bill in the Senate), did the right thing by voting against it—it passed anyway with some Republican votes—and Jayapal (along with allies like Ro Khanna and Katie Porter) were wrong to vote for it, based on a promise from Manchin that he and President Joe Biden had worked out an overall “framework” for the contents of the follow-up BBB—a promise Jayapal says he broke on Sunday. (Manchin denies that he ever supported the bill’s ambitious “framework.”)
Manchin himself called Jayapal to discuss his decision on Sunday, a conversation she was only willing to share her half of. It did not go well. Still, whatever his ultimate game plan, Manchin has made himself available to other Democrats to discuss next moves since his Sunday bombshell. He spoke to Biden that night, and promised to resume negotiations early next year. He jumped on a Zoom conference call with the Senate Democratic caucus Tuesday evening, but repeated his concerns about inflation and the deficit and his demand that the party move slowly on BBB, perhaps even starting up the committee process again. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer reminded Manchin that BBB has been examined in more than 60 Senate hearings, according to Politico, and promised to move the legislation for a vote early in the new year.
Also Tuesday, Jayapal reached out to Manchin to try to reopen a dialogue. She asked him to clarify what exactly he supported in the broad “framework” that Democrats thought they had a deal on last summer, and what he opposed. A day later, she has still not heard back.
Reaching out to Manchin is what makes Jayapal a formidable, unpredictable (in a good way) progressive leader. When we spoke yesterday, she genuinely sounded like she was at her wit’s end with him, telling me flatly, “I thought I could rely on his word, and I obviously couldn’t,” adding, “I think he just doesn’t want to do it.” Nevertheless, she then put the ball in his court, calling Manchin and telling The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, “We all understand that we need 50 votes, and he’s our 50th vote.”
Meanwhile, Jayapal is pushing a two-pronged strategy, with Democrats trying to move BBB—either the whole thing, or parts of it—while pushing the Biden administration to pursue executive actions that make struggling Americans’ lives better, whether extending student loan repayment, drug pricing limits and perhaps new Covid relief, now that Omicron is spiking around the country. Our conversation was lightly edited for length and clarity.
What was your Sunday conversation with Senator Manchin like?
Well, he called me, I didn’t ask for the phone call, he called me. I don’t want to characterize what he said. I just told him it was very frustrating because I thought I could rely on his word, but obviously I couldn’t. He has a very different characterization of things, but the president told me that [Manchin] was committed to their framework, and yet Manchin appears to be walking away from it, after months and months of negotiation.
But it’s worth thinking about how we got here. And I think it goes back to the White House deciding they were going to separate the two bills, putting all this premium on bipartisanship, and leaving 85 percent of the agenda to not even be negotiated, much less talked about, until it came over to the House—and we insisted we weren’t going to move the BIF [bipartisan infrastructure bill] without the BBB. I think it’s important to say it also goes back to the Senate—when the Senate passed the BIF, with every single progressive senator voting for it, with no agreement on Build Back Better! At all! That then put all the pressure on the House. I think we did a remarkable job—60 members, including many long-term allies of [Speaker Nancy Pelosi], saying we’re not going to do this until we get real negotiation, a real framework, which we got—Senator Manchin did commit to the president on the framework. The idea that we could have held onto the BIF and that would have forced him to change his mind? I think he would have used that as an excuse to say Build Back Better is dead.
And then you’d have gotten nothing, and there was some good stuff in the bipartisan bill.
People want to put the blame on us, but why did it get to us? Progressive senators decided to let it through! It’s not like the CPC trusted Manchin, and the Squad and Bernie didn’t—we all never trusted Manchin! The question was: What was going to be the most compelling way to keep him at the table? It’s a legitimate perspective, to think holding up BIF would have kept him at the table—but I don’t think it would have. Remember, the BIF was [Senator Kyrsten] Sinema’s bill—it wasn’t Manchin’s. And I think it got him committed, to the president, to the framework. That only happened because the CPC held the line. I believe he was looking for a way to get out of it.
Do you have any optimism about it—which pieces, if any, might survive?
I think the hard thing—we’re not giving up, we’re gonna fight to get as much of BBB past the Senate—but I also think it would be a mistake to only pursue that strategy. Because we are still negotiating with a person who I believe did not negotiate in good faith with us. So there’s no telling whether or not we can get something through. Is there a possibility? Sure. Are we gonna pursue it? Sure. At some point we have to recognize either the scope and/or the timing of this is not gonna be sufficient. I think we need a two-track strategy with executive actions that have to do with Omicron, with health care—and also cutting [families’] costs. We should not let American families feel the pain of not getting a child tax credit check in January. We have to get them money. We should look at extending the student debt moratorium, or canceling student debt. Are there executive orders that can cut health care costs and pharmaceutical costs? We have to accept the fact that if we only pursue a legislative strategy—I’ve got the patience of Job, I’m willing to talk to Senator Manchin!—but it may at some point be clear we are not getting this thing done and we have to be able to move forward.
Do you believe he just wanted to kill the child tax credit?
I find it hard to believe that. Because… and I did say this to him as well. He feels there was a misunderstanding about what he agreed to. But I think if there’s a misunderstanding, you pick up the phone and say, hey, this isn’t what I agreed to. You can even say I changed my mind on this…
But you don’t go to Fox—
No, you don’t go to Fox News on the Sunday before Christmas and pull the plug, and not tell the president you’re doing that! And you know, he has been resistant on CTC the entire time.
I take his point that there are things, when we put paid leave back in, there were people in the House who kept pushing, he said, “You guys keep pushing me!” I do understand that perspective. But he did agree to one year of the CTC. The idea that some reporters are saying he wanted 10 years of the CTC… that’s not true. He told me he was OK with the housing, with the elder care, with child care. If this was really what it was, we could have resolved these things.
So what do you think it really was?
[Long pause] I think he just doesn’t want to do it. But…I think it’s still possible. We’re not giving up. We’re gonna try to get a bill passed. But I do think we have to recognize this was not good-faith negotiation—where he agreed to something and was gonna stick to it.
Do you have any notion that the president is open to these executive actions? Where is your leverage?
The leverage is the CPC in the House did the most to advance the president’s agenda, the 85 percent that was in Build Back Better. And he knows that he hasn’t been able to fulfill that because Joe Manchin went back on his word. He knows he’s got a lot of responsibility, and he’s got big tools in his toolbox. People need to feel the difference in their lives quickly. And even the postponement of BBB to Christmas, it would have been a challenge to deliver benefits quickly. Another delay is gonna make it even harder for people to feel a difference in their lives.
It’s so incredible to me this would happen before Christmas…people got their last child credits before the holiday…
And they probably already spent it on Christmas—a treat to their 3-year-old child who wanted a new toy, or a movie with the family.
So Scroogelike. OK, last question, but it’s a big one: Is there any way all of this craziness leads us to a pathway where Manchin supports a voting rights filibuster carve-out?
Well, he did say to me that he’s very committed to getting some voting rights through. But I should say it’s not just him, it’s Sinema who has to come along on that. Again, I just think it’s very hard to hang our hat on that.… We have to hold two opposing things in our mind at the same time. He hasn’t delivered on the things he committed to, so it makes it difficult to trust that he will. But at the same time, we can’t throw our hands up and say, “We don’t trust him, we’re gonna give up.” Some people may have thought I was saying that yesterday, when I talked about executive action. But not at all. We gotta pursue the two-track strategy. We can’t only rely on him given our history, and what’s at stake and the timing. We have to be thinking beyond that, we’re not gonna get that either. Let’s take executive actions… and by the way, maybe if we take some aggressive executive actions on climate, that could change the calculus for Senator Manchin. Either we do this through legislation or executive actions. If we take executive actions on fossil fuel subsidies, or capping the price of Epi-pens…
Yes, I got that Epi-pen reference! So what if anything makes you optimistic as we end this year?
The things we’re working on are not easy. If they were easy, they would be done. They require tectonic shifts in how we see poverty, inequality, wealth, all of these factors. If you think about all the hard things, it’s like nothing that we haven’t seen before. These are things to give us enormous hope and drive and momentum to continue to fight and get this done for the American people. We have to do it. And we will.