Pramila Jayapal, one of the most influential Democrats in Congress, explains why she wants to change

7 minutes
Pramila Jayapal, one of the most influential Democrats in Congress, explains why she wants to change

Pramila Jayapal looks solemn; she is one of the top leaders of the progressive movement in Congress and she is poised to finally effect change in a democrat-controlled government after a decade of party sharing power with Republicans. She is now in no mood to celebrate. After the passage of the$ 1.9 trillion COVID 19 relief package in mid-March, Jayapal was preparing to reintroduce her Medicare for All Act when a gunman killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, near Atlanta and ignited a national conversation about racism, sexism and violence against Asian Americans.

When we spoke on March 19 by Zoom, Jayapal had just come from a moment of silence on the House floor for the victims. It's been very hard, she says, in her office where she sighs in a chair. And it is also not surprising that there are so many people who have been affected by recent circumstances. The situation is, in some ways, very familiar to the Congresswoman.

Jayapal, 55, who was born in Seattle and came to the U.S. to attend college in Georgetown, got her start in politics as an activist in India advocating for immigrants who experienced discrimination after the September 11 attacks. She founded the largest immigrant rights organization in Washington State, formed Somali coalitions and sued the George W. Bush administration over its deportation of diverse immigrants. She said that experience has taught her that even tragedies can be opportunities for change.

But after years of agitation from the outside, Jayapal is a bona fide insider. She was elected to the 2016 U.S. Congress after two years in the senate, and she spent her first year fighting President Donald Trump at every turn. Now, as chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus she is one of the most influential officials of the left flank of the Democrats, and she has become a primary conduit between President Joe Biden and those in his party who think he's an overly conservative centrist. Her journey from activist to powerful legislator was aided by an approach that melds pragmatic beliefs with progressive style-a combination that has won her respect from both Democratic camps. However, governing in a government under unified democratic control is a more nuanced project than pushing for ambitious proposals from the outside or even from the minority party.

Jayapal's continued influence in D.C. depends on her ability to convince her caucus that compromise and incremental gains can sometimes be the best way forward and on her success in making that possible. She says, `` Governing is different than opposing, '' and I think we are all getting used to the idea that we are governing. The biggest question for Biden and the left is how far Jayapal is willing to go.

Jayapal does not support Medicare for All- one of Biden's signature policies- and he is more moderate on most economic issues than Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, whom Jayapal endorsed in the presidential primary. Nor does Jayapal so far support eliminating the filibuster, the Senate rule that effectively requires 60 votes to pass most of the legislation, which Biden and other progressives want to scrap. But Jayapal says she has never been interested in replicating the antagonistic relationship between the right-wing House Freedom Caucus and the Republican leadership that divided the GOP in 2015.

Instead of acting as an opposition arm, she wants to be a proposition one: presenting the most progressive ideas possible and framing them in ways that can persuade her colleagues-and the President-to support them. She says this model worked for the legislation COVID -19 of Biden on the relief of the nation.

The American Rescue Plan looked a lot like what progressive members wanted, and Jayapal got there in part because of the careful negotiation by people like Biden. During the process, Jayapal kept close contact with the White House and Senate leadership and her team nearly daily spoke to the House and Senate Legislative staff, she says.

When the$ 15 minimum wage increase was removed from the package because of the Senate rules, some Democrats considered withholding their votes entirely. Jayapal helped persuade those members to support the deal, and it passed almost entirely along party lines. Progressives have been pushed to the margins in politics so often that I think we might have gotten used to that, Jayapal says. And so people are very inclined to say, 'Oh, this happened again-we did n't get everything we wanted. But she taught her colleagues to realize, We should take the win. It's the strategy Biden intends to pursue on other policies-while trying to keep Jayapal further left behind the scenes.

After the relief package passed, Biden called Jayapal to thank her for her help, she says, and while she thank him for his leadership on the law in return, she also told him that he still wants to see the minimum wage increased. As democrats begin to craft the largest infrastructure legislation, Jayapal plans to advocate for policies that will invest in America's poorest communities.

The rescue package took on decades of neoliberal thinking, says she, and she hopes it will show Americans that the federal government should provide more equal opportunities for all. Jayapal unveiled his infrastructure proposal on 31 March and before that Biden and a small group of other progressive lawmakers met with the White House twice to talk strategy, she says.

She wants the next bills to combat climate change, invest in childcare and Medicare leave policies and take aim at prescription drug costs. The plan is already more ambitious than COVID- 19 relief, and hours after Jayapal released his outline, Biden called on him to be more contentious. To be effective, Jayapal says progressives need to focus on a limited number of what she calls populist priorities. Health care is an important area for Jayapal; She co-chaired the Health Care Unity Task Force that Biden and Sanders set up last summer, and she wants Biden to adopt the proposals they agreed to, including lowering the eligibility age of Medicare and adding aggressive drug-pricing powers.

I have raised it now to everyone with whom I have had the opportunity to speak, she says, chuckling. But Jayapal has learned she ca n't always hold out for the purest solution as she would have in her activism days. She knows Medicare for All is n't close to passing Congress.

So she's focused on getting what she calls other elements, such as creating long-term care jobs and expanding Medicare eligibility, into other bills while holding hearings on the larger plan. I 'm an immigrant woman, and I 've spent my life working on civil rights, says she, so I feel a responsibility to do whatever I can to get people health care quickly. She knows none of her goals are going to be easy to achieve, and time is short, with Republicans hoping to take over the House in 2022. She is energized and during difficult days she draws on the lessons from the early years of her career defending immigrant rights.

As she pushes Biden to accept the left's agenda piece by piece, she wants progressives to never, ever let that undermine our ability to create the tipping point at which real change becomes possible, she says. That's an organizer's mentality: you never give up an opportunity to really build the movement so when this tipping point comes, you 're ready. This appears in the April 12, 2021 issue of TIME.

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