The state of Washington is about to switch quarterbacks in Congress. Having initially won over Biden and scored well on progressive media, particularly MSNBC and The Nation, Seattle Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-7) may be about to be benched. Suiting up is a fellow member of our House delegation, Rep. Suzan DelBene from the Eastside’s First District.
The charismatic Jayapal is leader of the 95-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, while the charismatically-challenged DelBene is leader of the New Democratic Coalition in the House, a moderate bloc of 97 members a tad larger than the Progressives’ team. (Curiously, Adam Smith, D-9, is listed on both rosters.) The impressive two Evergreen State leaders, Jayapal and DelBene, differ in more than their progressive and moderate politics. Jayapal is a media star, while DelBene is the classic, shy, workhorse — the tortoise, if you will, not the hare.
Jayapal’s caucus took a big gamble in holding hostage the infrastructure bill, a must-have for many moderate Democrats, only agreeing to back the bipartisan infrastructure measure if the broader (Democrats-only) Build Back Better Bill addressing social welfare and climate change issues was passed first. DelBene’s caucus managed to drive down the overall cost of the package to $1.75 trillion over 10 years, and they argued for more fiscal honesty and permanent revenues for fewer targeted components of the BBB wish list. Team Biden defied his moderate-seeming campaign and opted for the go-for-broke Jayapal approach. But Sen. Joe Manchin held firm in resisting the effort to juggle funding deadlines and thereby wedge $5 trillion of spending into a $2 trillion bill. Jayapal’s gambit ultimately devolved into a tactical retreat (trust Joe Biden to work it out with Manchin). The final compromise might come close to what the DelBene coalition early recommended to Team Biden’s deaf ears. Jayapal may soon reside in the doghouse.
As the BBB measure appears stuck in limbo and pushed into the low-risk election year of 2022, Jayapal has continued her defiance by urging Biden to enact the troubled measures by executive action. Ben Ritz of the Progressive Policy Institute signaled in a New York Times op-ed that the wind may be shifting now to the DelBene half-loaf formula. Ritz argues that Joe Manchin has paradoxically made the Democrats a gift: “Representative Suzan DelBene of Washington, who presides over the 97-member New Democrat Coalition that will be crucial for passing the final bill through the House, released a statement embracing nearly identical [to Manchin’s] priorities and reiterating her coalition’s preference for ‘doing a few things well for longer,’ which is also the approach Sen. Manchin has demanded.”
The conservative Spectator piled on, indicating how much on the defensive Congressional delegates could be. A columnist deemed Jayapal the “loser of the year,” adding: “If she sounds like a bitter loser, that’s because she is one. She wasted months of Congress’s time and then caved, leaving Democrats with a terrible legislative record and low public support going into the midterms.”
Ellie Gardey, author of the Spectator column, gleefully wrote Jayapal’s political obituary:
“The stunt orchestrated and executed by Jayapal wasn’t just pointless, however. In her three-month standstill, Biden’s approval ratings continued to dive, the Democrats appeared incapable of governing, and Virginia flipped to the Republicans. And because passing infrastructure felt like defeat and surrender, Democrats have gained little from it. In fact, Biden saw no increase in his approval rating after the House passed infrastructure or after he signed it into law. It turns out that Jayapal’s master plan, which endeared her to progressives at the time, was a disaster of epic proportions for the Democrats. If she had simply passed infrastructure after the Senate passed it, Democrats would have avoided her ridiculous charade that dragged on for months while dragging [down] the party name.”
It is notable that House leadership is now dependent on Washington state Congresswomen. Moreover, DelBene’s predecessor as chair of the New Democratic Coalition was Derek Kilmer (D-6), who remains a guiding light for the moderates. Six of the seven Democrats in the Washington delegation are members of the New Democratic Coalition (Rich Larson, Kim Schrier, Adam Smith, Marilyn Strickland, plus DelBene and Kilmer). Jayapal is the sole Progressive member in this state, though Adam Smith had been a member. Oregon lists three Progressive Caucus members (Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, and Peter DeFazio).
Of course, Jayapal’s misplay does not mean DelBene will succeed. A face-saving deal with Manchin may yet prove to be a vindication of the Jayapal gambit. Still, with mid-terms looming and the fiscal pretzels of the BBB now very visible, smart money is moving to the tortoise.