Shadow speaker: Progressive leader Jayapal rises during budget brawl

Democratic strategist says progressives will be ‘potent political power in the post-Pelosi era’

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal has cast herself as Democrats’ new heroine while shielding her caucus from blame for any failure to deliver on the president’s agenda, Bennett writes.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal has cast herself as Democrats’ new heroine while shielding her caucus from blame for any failure to deliver on the president’s agenda, Bennett writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 2, 2021 at 5:01pm

ANALYSIS — For speakers of the House, being a member of Congress is not a requirement. But as Rep. Pramila Jayapal is showing, membership in the chamber is a must for shadow speakers.

As her party’s warring factions have struggled to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill and strike a deal on a massive social spending measure, the Washington Democrat and chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus has made move after move that outflanked other leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

First, Jayapal coaxed her progressive mates into dropping their months-old demand that Democrats keep the latter bill at $3 trillion. Then she made some key concessions that allowed negotiators to settle on a smaller $1.75 trillion package. She next blocked a vote on both measures until legislative text had been examined and it became clear how much political blame would fall on House progressives if the social spending legislation never made the drive to the White House.

“Jayapal had to buck the House speaker and play hardball with Sens. [Joe] Manchin and [Kyrsten] Sinema,” Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said of the Democratic holdouts from West Virginia and Arizona, respectively. “She also had to rein in progressive Democratic House members who are disappointed by the absence of free community college tuition and provisions to expand Medicare coverage.”

Pelosi and other top Democrats have taken to referring to their party as a “big tent,” a moniker once also claimed by the pre-Donald Trump GOP. The Democrats pride themselves as a diverse party, but such diversity can also make party discipline tougher to manage.

There are 220 House Democrats, and 95 of them are in the Progressive Caucus. Most of the progressives, including Jayapal, cruise to reelection by wide, double-digit margins. But Democrats also have among their ranks members who win more narrowly, including seven in districts that Trump carried in 2020. Managing that disparity is not easy.

Pelosi, first elected in 1987, frequently reminds foes and frenemies that she sees herself as a “master legislator.” Over this latest round of Democratic drama, Jayapal, first elected in 2016, has gotten Pelosi’s attention. The speaker expressed frustration last week that Jayapal demanded Democratic leaders and the White House produce legislative text before bringing the social safety net bill to the floor.

“People will then say, ‘Well, this should be this way or clarification or addition, subtraction,’ whatever it is,” a notably agitated Pelosi said on Oct. 28. “This is the legislative process. … They’ll hear from our chairmen about the greatness of the Build Back Better initiative, and it’s pretty exciting.”

The House gavel-holder was trying to speed the process of passing the Senate-approved infrastructure bill and the reconciliation package. For good reasons: President Joe Biden was heading overseas and wanted a win before he started talking with G-20 and other world leaders. And, on the political calendar, Democrats were increasing concerned about the toss-up Virginia governor’s race in a state Biden won by 10 points over Trump one year ago.

‘What deal?’

Pelosi has jammed her caucus before, winning votes by arguing that time for further talks had simply run out.

This time, however, the progressive shadow speaker stood firm.

“There are too many ‘no’ votes for the vote to pass today,” Jayapal said on Oct. 28. “We do need the text, and we do need the vote on both bills in the House at the same time.”

“I asked members of the Rules Committee and they said, ‘I don’t know what we’re marking, what are we marking up?’” she added. “People are like, ‘Did you sign off on the deal?’ I said, ‘What deal?’”

It typically is up to the speaker to make demands of senators of the same party, using the Capitol’s version of the president’s bully pulpit. As the two Senate holdouts mostly avoided television cameras and reporters, Jayapal went on a media blitz.

The Progressive Caucus chair even shocked many with a Pelosi-like maneuver after Manchin on Monday announced his opposition to that legislative text, calling a bill he helped negotiate economically dangerous and chock-full of “budget gimmicks.”

Jayapal’s response? Announce that she would deliver 50 progressive votes for both measures, ensuring they could pass the House.

“I don’t understand it. I can’t speak for it,” she told CNN when asked about Manchin’s latest position, applying pressure before giving him some cover: “Tempers get a little flared toward the end of negotiations. I hope that’s all this is.”

After Manchin’s stunning takedown of the Democratic-penned reconciliation measure, Jayapal orchestrated a sudden strategic swerve. Progressives for weeks had demanded Manchin and Sinema state clearly they would vote for the social spending bill before the group would stand down.

“The president said he thinks he can get 51 votes for this bill. We are going to trust him. We are going to do our work in the House and let the Senate do its work,” she said on CNN. “But we’re tired of just continuing to wait for one or two people.”

Translation: Jayapal is shielding her caucus-within-the-caucus from political blame from liberal voters if Democrats fail to get the $1.75 trillion social package to Biden’s desk. Her move puts the onus squarely on the shoulders of the duo known as “Sinemanchin.”

‘Post-Pelosi era’

“If the Build Back Better legislation doesn’t pass, the blame will fall on the two moderate Democratic senators for being obstructionists,” said Bannon, the Democratic strategist. “If both bills pass, [Jayapal] will get credit for advancing the political agenda despite a wafer-slim Democratic congressional majority and an intense big business lobby campaign. Whatever the outcome, she has also positioned progressives as a potent political power in the post-Pelosi era.”

Even before floor votes had been scheduled, Jayapal was busy spiking the football and indirectly casting herself as Democrats’ new heroine.

“We are finally at the place we have been asking for — demanding over the last several months — which is two bills moving together in the House, and we’ll get them both done,” she said in a television interview Tuesday morning.

Pelosi recently declined to say whether she intends to run for reelection next year, much less try to retain her post as top House Democrat. When she reclaimed the gavel after the 2018 elections, she committed to wielding it for only two more terms. She has hedged since, including on whether she will seek reelection at all. Jayapal may not be eying Pelosi’s gavel, but — at least for now — she has positioned herself as shadow speaker.

Tellingly, as Republicans watched from the reconciliation sidelines, they diagnosed a weakened Pelosi.

Nancy Pelosi is a Lame Duck Speaker! Pass it on,” House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik tweeted last week. In another tweet, Stefanik gave merit to Jayapal’s demands: “Now Lame Duck Nancy wants to force a vote attached to a trillion dollar bill that hasn’t even been WRITTEN yet.”

Another New York Republican, Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Trump ally seeking the governor’s mansion in Albany, mocked Pelosi for bringing Biden to address her caucus as “her closer for the trillions of dollars she’s trying to jam through Congress. He’s left Capitol Hill each time with less votes than before he arrived.”

That is, until the shadow speaker delivered them.