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Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) speeaks to reporters after chairing a meeting of the Congressional Progressive Caucus on October 28, 2021. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

'Progressives Won't Leave Working Families Behind': Jayapal Stands Ground Against Pelosi-Biden

"We've been clear since the spring: the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act pass together—and that hasn't changed."

Brett Wilkins

In the wake of President Joe Biden's announcement Thursday of a new framework for a dramatically pared-down Build Back Better package, disappointed but resolute progressives vowed they "won't leave working families behind" and reasserted that the budget reconciliation and much narrower infrastructure bills must be passed in tandem.

"Progressives won't leave working families behind," insisted Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) "We've been clear since the spring: the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act pass together—and that hasn’t changed."

While Jayapal said that members of the Progressive Caucus "enthusiastically" endorsed the "many good things" in the framework announced by Biden, she expressed hope that Democrats in the Senate would still be able to save certain elements of the package, including prescription drug pricing.

Meanwhile, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the progressive whip, reportedly said there are not enough Democratic votes to pass the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill on Thursday, as requested by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), absent final legislative text and assurances on the larger bill.

"We have been clear since April: we will pass the bipartisan infrastructure once we vote a Build Back Better Act to help our communities," Omar asserted "That has not changed. No vote on infrastructure until we vote on reconciliation."

In his White House address, Biden declared that "after months of tough and thoughtful negotiations... we have a historic economic framework" that "will create millions of jobs, grow the economy, invest in our nation, and our people, turn the climate crisis into an opportunity and put us on a path not only to compete but to win the economic competition of the 21st century against China and every other major country in the world."

While the president acknowledged that "no one got everything they wanted, including me," progressive critics, given the amount of corporate lobbying aimed at the legislative effort, shot back at that assertion.

Following Biden's announcement, Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he was not prepared to support the watered-down proposal—whose price tag was slashed from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion in the hopes of gaining right-wing Democratic senators' support—without the expansion of Medicare included and the ability to lower drug prices.

Moreover, Sanders said he agreed with House progressives who said they would not vote one bill until both were finalized and guarantees were in place that both will pass the Senate.

"What you don't want to see is the infrastructure bill pass and then not have the kind of Build Back Better bill that we need," Sanders said. "That's why you need 50 members [of the Senate] on board before there should be a vote, in my view, in the House."

"Clearly to my mind it has some major gaps in it," Sanders said of the weakened proposal.

Among the key social programs championed by progressives that were gutted following aggressive corporate lobbying are free community college, paid family leave, allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, Medicare expansion, and the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) designed to more rapidly transition the nation to renewable energy. Also chopped was a billionaire tax proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) but rejected by coal baron Manchin as "divisive" and reportedly opposed by multimillionaire House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

"The American people are very, very clear that they're sick and tired of paying the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs," Sanders said. "There is to the best of my knowledge no language in there that takes on the pharmaceutical industry."

The cuts were the result of relentless obstruction by corporate-backed Democrats Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema, whose votes are required to pass the legislation via the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process.

However, it was unclear whether they would vote for the pared-down package.

It was also uncertain whether progressives would accept the weakened package—or the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill they delayed earlier this month over concerns that their $3.5 trillion proposal would be sacrificed.

"I am not going to sell out my district for a bill that was written by the fossil fuel industry and championed by two Democratic senators who bow down to Big Pharma and corporate polluters," Rep. Rashida Tlaib bluntly stated in anticipation of Biden's speech.

After leaving a Congressional Progressive Caucus meeting Thursday, Tlaib reportedly said to "put a 'hell no'" next to her name on the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

During his speech, Biden couched the compromise in terms of "competitiveness versus complacency." 

"It's about leading the world or letting the world pass us by," he insisted.

However, progressives were quick to point out who would be "passed by" by the dramatically reduced reconciliation bill.

"The omission of paid family and medical leave from a package aiming to Build Back Better from a global pandemic and care crisis would be a devastating outcome for the millions of workers who are being asked to choose between their health, paychecks, and caregiving every day,” the advocacy group Paid Leave for All said in a statement.

Zeroing in on the jettisoned Medicare provisions, the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen said in a statement that "failing to take this opportunity to end Big Pharma price-gouging will mean Americans will continue to go without medicines they need." 

"One-in-four Americans report rationing or skipping prescriptions because of high prices," the statement added. "It will mean that many of those who do find a way to pay for needed medications will face economic insecurity."

Varshini Prakash, executive director of the youth-led climate justice group Sunrise Movement, said in a statement that "this framework is exactly that—just a framework. A deal is not a deal until progressives agree to it."

"It's promising to see a substantial investment in climate action," she continued, "but it's appalling and frankly cruel that drug pricing, paid leave, Medicare expansion on dental and vision, are all cut from the framework, and Biden seems willing to leave a pathway to citizenship for millions up to an un-elected parliamentarian."

"We stand with Sen. Sanders and House progressives on needing to see the legislative text, ensuring Sens. Manchin and Sinema vote for the reconciliation package, and passing reconciliation in the House before the House brings the [infrastructure bill] to a vote," added Prakash. "Progressives are the ones who have fought like hell for Biden's full agenda, and their votes cannot be taken for granted."

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