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How Pramila Jayapal Views the Biden Administration

As Joe Biden laid out a grand vision for his Presidency, in a speech before Congress late last month, cameras caught Representative Pramila Jayapal standing and applauding. Behind her face mask, she later told an aide, she was smiling. This was not the Joe Biden whom progressives like Jayapal expected to see when he meandered out of the Democratic pack and vanquished their champions, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, in last year’s primaries. That was the avuncular centrist who persuaded enough voters that he was the safe choice to beat Donald Trump in November. But this Joe Biden is going much, much bigger. As Jayapal said, “President Biden has risen to the moment, and I really do give him an ‘A’ in what he’s done so far. It’s been bold, it’s been progressive, it’s been what the country needs.”

Jayapal is the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose ninety-five members have found themselves, to their surprise, pushing on an open door in the early months of the Biden Presidency. After years of frustration with the incrementalist approaches of the Party’s most powerful Democrats, they are backing a White House occupant who is pursuing progressive priorities more strongly than any President since Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt. Biden’s agenda has only grown more ambitious, evident in his endorsement of federal legislation on voting rights and police reform; his $2.25 trillion jobs, infrastructure, and climate plan; and, now, his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. “It feels like we’re actually doing what we came to Congress to do,” Jayapal said, when we spoke recently.

Jayapal was working from home, in Seattle, in early February, with the chatter of cable news in the background, when Biden stepped to a White House lectern to tout his American Rescue Plan and its $1.9 trillion in spending. He laid out the benefits, including relief checks, rental assistance, money for child care, and family leave—plus billions to cities, states, and small businesses. Though the principal motivation was the continuing fallout from COVID-19, this was a wholehearted White House endorsement of spending priorities that Jayapal and her colleagues on the left of the Democratic Party had long advocated. But she really perked up when she heard Biden say, “The biggest risk is not going too big. . . . It’s if we go too small.” Jayapal called across the room to her husband, “That’s our line! He used our line!”

Embarking on Democratic control of the White House and Congress for the first time in a decade, Jayapal had been urging Party leaders to use the phrase and ditch the cautious solutions that had defined the Presidencies of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. With slim majorities in the House and the Senate, the Senate filibuster stands in the way. Jayapal favors invoking procedural maneuvers—such as the budget-reconciliation process, if possible—or reforming or eliminating the filibuster, if necessary. Jayapal told me, “We can’t go back to voters and say, ‘You know what, I’m really sorry, but there are these racist, arcane Senate procedures that stopped us from doing what we said we would do if you gave us the House, the Senate, and the White House.’ ” In other words, go big, even if it means that Republicans may benefit when they next take charge of the upper chamber. “For anybody who says, ‘Well, then what happens if the Republicans are in power and then we don’t have any backstops?,’ I’d say, ‘If we don’t do this, they will be in power.’ ”

On April 21st, she and Sanders introduced the College for All Act, which would eliminate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities, and also at nonprofit historically Black colleges and universities, for families earning less than a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars a year. It would also double the size of Pell Grant awards, to nearly thirteen thousand dollars per year, and make community colleges and public trade schools free. This is significantly more ambitious than Biden’s American Families Plan. According to details released last month by the White House, Biden’s proposal would deliver two years of free community college, an increase of fourteen hundred dollars in Pell Grant awards, and thirty-nine billion dollars in income-based tuition support for students attending H.B.C.U.s and other colleges that serve tribal and certain other minority communities. “It’s a progressive moment,” she told me. “It’s a populist moment. It’s an urgent moment.”

Jayapal, who is fifty-five, is serving her third term in Congress. Born in Madras, now Chennai, she grew up in India, Singapore, and Indonesia; arrived in the United States, at age sixteen, to attend Georgetown University; and eventually became a naturalized U.S. citizen. After earning an M.B.A. and working in the private sector, she spent nearly a decade working on health-equity issues for PATH, a global nonprofit. The backlash against immigrants of color, including Muslims, Arab Americans, and South Asians, following the September 11th attacks, prompted her to establish Hate Free Zone, now known as OneAmerica, a Seattle-based immigrant-rights organization that she ran for a dozen years. She won a seat in the Washington State Senate, in 2014, and in the U.S. Congress two years later. A backer of Medicare for All, during the Trump Administration she prodded Democrats to move beyond what she called “murky moderation.”

In 2020, Jayapal supported universal health insurance and chaired Sanders’s health-policy team, but her hopes for a progressive turn were muted after Biden won the nomination. She became more hopeful last summer, after leading the Biden-Sanders health-care-policy committee, when Biden unexpectedly pledged support for an array of progressive ideas. To apply pressure, Jayapal and her colleagues in the Congressional Progressive Caucus announced, in December, a sweeping set of priorities that stretched from cancelling student debt and restructuring tax policy to ending the war in Afghanistan. Yet, even after Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won their Georgia runoffs, shifting Senate control to the Democrats, she wondered whether a party pinned to the middle ground for decades would budge. “Would we actually deliver?” she asked herself.

By every indication, Biden aims to deliver, guided by what is fast becoming the animating principle of his Presidency: an expanded, activist role for the federal government as funder, incubator, regulator, agenda setter, and service provider. “Government must be a powerful force for good in the lives of Americans,” Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council, told the Wall Street Journal. He also said that the Administration would be “unapologetic” about a particular point, and there was that phrase again: “The risk of doing too little outweighs the risk of doing too much.”

Biden himself has generally avoided press conferences and interviews, but he is defending his policies in controlled settings. His speech to Congress, lasting slightly longer than an hour and delivered in muted tones, was the fullest description of his vision he has yet offered. (He ended by saying, “Thank you for your patience.”) He spoke of the need to demonstrate the resilience of American democracy, after the transgressions of the Trump Administration and the former President’s followers, but one could substitute the word “government.” “In our first one hundred days together,” he said, “we have acted to restore the people’s faith in our democracy to deliver. We’re vaccinating the nation, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. We’re delivering real results—people, they can see it, feel in their own lives.”

One sign of the challenges that Biden will face in gathering support for his agenda—and maintaining Democratic control of Congress next year—is clear in the findings of a Washington Post-ABC News poll, conducted in mid-April. Fifty-three per cent of all respondents said that they are worried that he will “do too much to increase the size and role of government.” As Biden addressed Congress, a fund-raising e-mail from the Republican National Committee popped into my in-box, with the subject line, “Are you watching Biden’s speech?” I was. It read, in a style that typified the R.N.C. during the Trump era, “You don’t have to sit through Joe Biden’s speech to know he’s a member of the Radical Left and wants to force his BIG GOVERNMENT SOCIALIST agenda on the entire Country.” The e-mail asked for a donation as evidence that “the American people see through his LIES.” Similar house-on-fire messaging, echoed by like-minded pundits and media outlets, boosted Republicans last year in large swaths of the country.


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