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‘Know when to hold and know when to fold’: Progressives accept limits of their power

Democrats tore a litany of progressive priorities out of their signature domestic policy bill, but the House left’s leader is still declaring a win.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, described the $1.7 trillion social policy bill as just about the best-case scenario, a notable acknowledgment of the microscopic Democratic majorities that have bedeviled liberals all year long. And neither Jayapal nor her members are seriously talking about tanking the Senate’s version of the bill when it comes back to the House for a final green light — if it can get past the further cuts and delays that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) appears likely to exact.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure it stays as good as possible. We are now counting on the Senate to make sure to preserve it,” Jayapal said in an interview this week.

To be sure, there’s plenty for progressives to like in their party’s bill to expand the social safety net, from universal pre-K to more than $500 billion for climate change. But Jayapal and many in her caucus have spent months fuming as the centrist Manchin threatens to wield a one-man veto pen over their ambitions and push the bill into next year.

And that leaves liberals with the tough task of convincing their restive base that it is, in fact, a victory as attention turns to the midterms.

The sales job is only going to get harder: policies such as paid family leave, immigration, drug price negotiation and subsidized childcare are in jeopardy — facing Manchin’s opposition and the labyrinthine budget rules of the upper chamber. Several senior progressives acknowledged that it would be difficult to communicate liberals’ now-cooperative approach to a broad swath of their voters, who are increasingly restless about inaction in Congress.

“There are a lot of bills that are languishing on the Senate majority leader’s desk because of the filibuster. That’s a very hard thing to explain to people,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.). “All they know is we have controlling majorities in all those places, and we ought to be able to deliver, and they’re right.”

Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), a retiring liberal who’s spent 14 years in the House, chalked up some of the left’s more hardline approach this year to the fact that the House’s newest generation of liberals hadn’t governed in a majority before.

“They were posturing,” Yarmuth said, “but also thinking, ‘maybe I can get 100 percent of what I want.’ Around here if you get 70 percent of what you want, that’s a major victory. I think some of them learned along the way that that’s real life. I think Pramila sure did. But ultimately, she handled it really well and was very effective.”

Indeed, progressives say they’re putting the bill in perspective — as a once-in-a-generation safety net expansion that they fought tooth and nail for, one that still includes some major goals, despite the party’s thin margins. And they say that’ll be the case even if a final agreement leaves out issues such as immigration reform, which the Senate’s parliamentarian has repeatedly rejected under the chamber’s budget rules, or paid leave, a policy that Manchin has said doesn’t belong in the party-line bill.


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