'Try us': Top progressive Democrat says she's not bluffing in stand-off with the party's conservatives

'Try us': Top progressive Democrat says she's not bluffing in stand-off with the party's conservatives
Rep. Pramila Jayapal

The Democratic Party's sweeping domestic policy agenda—from sizable climate investments to drug-pricing reforms to Medicare expansion—is under growing threat from the inside as right-wing members backed by corporate cash aim to tank or pare back central components of a multitrillion-dollar reconciliation plan.

Conservative Democrats' increasingly coordinated effort to gut their own party's legislation—and a top priority of President Joe Biden—has led to an increasingly tense confrontation with progressive lawmakers, one that has major implications for the United States' tattered social safety net and the nation's response to the existential climate emergency.

Increasingly concerned that the reconciliation package is on the verge of collapse, progressives are working to salvage the legislation by promising to vote down a priority of conservative Democrats: a $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill that Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W-Va.) helped negotiate with their Republican counterparts in the Senate.

In an interview on Tuesday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said that "more than half" of the Congressional Progressive Caucus' 96 members are committed to voting against the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure package unless the not-yet-complete reconciliation bill moves simultaneously. Whether around 48 progressive "no" votes are enough to tank the legislation will depend on how many House Republicans are willing to support it.

Asked by reporters to respond to conservative Democrats who believe progressives are bluffing, Jayapal said, "Try us."

"The Biden agenda—our Democratic agenda—is at stake," Jayapal, the chair of the CPC, tweeted Tuesday night. "It's progressives who are fighting to pass it in its entirety and deliver long-overdue investments in child care, paid leave, healthcare, climate action, and more. Let's get this done."

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the CPC whip, echoed Jayapal's message, warning that corporate interests are pulling out all the stops to undercut the Democratic Party's legislative aims.

"Big Pharma, Big Oil, Wall Street, and their foot soldiers in Congress are doing everything in their power to kill President Biden's agenda," Omar said. "We are trying to save it."

"Simply put: If we don't pass the Build Back Better agenda, Dems will have broken their promise to the American people," she added. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we have to meet the moment."

Last month, in an attempt to thwart a brewing revolt by right-wing Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed to bring the bipartisan infrastructure bill to the floor for a vote on September 27 in exchange for conservative members' support for a budget resolution that set the stage for the reconciliation package.

But it appears increasingly likely that the reconciliation package—portions of which have been mired in lengthy and contentious mark-up sessions—won't be finished on September 27, raising questions as to whether Pelosi will follow through on her promise to bring the bipartisan bill to the floor by that date. Some conservative Democrats have vowed to kill the reconciliation package if a House vote on the bipartisan bill fails or is delayed.

"I don't think the speaker is going to bring a bill up that is going to fail," Jayapal told reporters after meeting with Pelosi on Tuesday. "Our position has not changed."

The reconciliation package represents Democrats' effort to pass significant investments in green energy, child care, education, paid family leave, housing, and other areas without needing any Republican support. But the majority party's narrow margins in both the House and Senate mean corporate-friendly Democrats have leverage over the size and scope of the package.

While progressives have secured impactful victories in committee fights over the reconciliation bill—including a universal child care subsidy that some conservatives wanted to means test—right-wing Democrats have imperiled their party's drug-pricing plan, specifically a proposal to let Medicare negotiate prescription medicine costs directly with pharmaceutical companies.

After a dark money group bankrolled by the pharmaceutical industry ran ads on her behalf, Sinema threatened to join conservative House Democrats in opposing the Medicare negotiation measure, which progressives are still working to include in the final package.

Meanwhile, Manchin—a major ally of Big Oil and a coal profiteer—is "preparing to remake President Biden's climate legislation in a way that tosses a lifeline to the fossil fuel industry," the New York Times reported over the weekend, noting the West Virginia Democrat's role as chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

The Intercept's Ryan Grim and Sara Sirota argued earlier this week that Sinema and Manchin's "maneuvers risk—or are intended to cause—a complete sabotage of the Democrats' once-in-a-generation chance to address pressing climate, healthcare, and immigration issues."

"Because the bicameral, multicommittee process is one of the party's only shots to enact its agenda without grappling with the filibuster, everything is getting thrown into it—including immigration and labor reform," Grim and Sirota wrote. "That structure is now reaching a breaking point. Over the weekend, the Senate parliamentarian, a staffer who serves in an advisory role that Democrats treat like a magistrate, warned that their version of immigration reform ran afoul of reconciliation rules. Democrats are able to move forward against her guidance if they wish but would again need buy-in from Manchin and Sinema to do so. Something's gotta give."

On Wednesday, Biden is expected to hold a series of meetings with Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to discuss the state of the reconciliation package and the Senate-passed bipartisan bill, which the president has also endorsed.

Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), a CPC member, stressed late Tuesday that progressives' stance has "been clear all along: the Senate's bipartisan infrastructure deal and the Build Back Better bill must move in tandem."

"I'm looking forward to voting for the Senate deal if, and only if, we also pass a reconciliation bill that meets this moment," Jones said.

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