Jayapal & DelBene: Exit Hare, Hello Tortoise…


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.

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.


  1. A well-informed friend writes:

    “A revised BBB solution the the New Dems might bless would likely be: $1.75T in spending, but fully paid for over 10 years. This would likely involve a reduced extension of the child-tax credit, maybe limiting the proposed expansion for full refundability — that is making the credit available to all people who qualify, even if they don’t owe any income tax — a solution that is the main single driver of the CTC’s poverty-reduction impact and could cost less than $500B over 10 years. That still leaves a lot of money for other stuff, like the climate change spending that Manchin has signed off on, though (as DelBene has argued all along) some elements of the current BBB spending wish list are going to have to be sacrificed. There is a win here for the taking, along DelBene/New Dem lines, assuming progressives don’t torpedo it.”

    This correspondent also points out that Sens. Manchin and Sinema drove down the overall cost to $1.75 trillion, not the New Dems in the House.

  2. “… pushed into the low-risk election year of 2022….” Are you nuts? Low-risk? 2022? Democracy itself is on the line and if the DelBene/Manchin crew (who knew?) successfully cut the child tax credit, universal child care & pre-K funding, family leave, reduction of prescription medication costs, expansion of Medicare, and funding for climate change initiatives then American families, who these measures are for, who need them, and who will prosper from them will say “Democrats can’t deliver, let someone else (Kevin McCarthy?!) give it a go, let’s see what the Republicans will do.” I repeat, Low-Risk? Are you nuts? Let’s see what the Republicans will do???
    Besides Senator President Maserati Commander Houseboat Skipper Coal Baron Joe Manchin just does not care. He now chairs the Senate Extraction Industries Committee and surely will after he switches party.

    • By “low risk” in 2022, I mean that Congress, eyeing reelection, typically doesn’t take electoral risks but plays it safe, procrastinates, and studies the tough issues. 2022 is, as Mackie says, a very high risk for the Democrats and the nation. Excuse the clumsy phrasing.

  3. I found this a very strange article and a very lopsided take on Jayapal. I think that she has been very strategic in always reinforcing that she is supporting the Biden agenda and not presenting herself as an ideologue. Yes, her bet didn’t play out but as a three-term house member, she has gotten incredible traction and prominence. The fact that WA is lucky enough to have two such effective Congresspeople in such prominent positions is impressive. I’d add Adam Smith who is quietly effective and works well with both Progressives and the New Democrats caucus.

    I do think that it is important to even get “half a loaf” and I don’t think it is a terrible thing to have some of these benefits means tested. In other words, families making over $250,000 or $300,00o probably don’t need the child tax credit. On the other hand, universal preK and child care could make the difference for everyone as well as prescription drug negotiation, expanded medicare to include hearing and dental, etc. Some paring down wouldn’t be the worst thing. The worst thing would be no bill at all.

    Also, 2022 is not a low-risk election by any means. A loss of the House and/or the Senate in 2022 spells doom for the Biden agenda and for 2024. Add to this the voter suppression laws passed in multiple states and we have a recipe for disaster in 2024. Right here in WA State, we need to do everything we can to get Kim Schrier re-elected, whether you live in her district or not.

  4. David,
    I find both your article and the discussion it has engendered quite reassuring. Our Washington with all it’s problems does not need to be the poster child for states the Republicans (should they regain either house) wish to punish. Jayapal’s lust to be accepted by “The Squad” and her subsequent aspirations to be Speaker were both awkward and a bit embarrassing. Her admittedly clever oratory has contributed little to any reasonable progress. May the moderates prevail!

      • Phil, Bob
        Speaker of the House is third in line of succession to the Presidency. Representative Jayapal was born in India, i.e. not in the required US, and is therefore ineligible to become Speaker or the President.
        Please find better arguments in your lust (looking at you Bob) to demean a genuinely hard-working Representative.
        Meanwhile, the Rs already are targeting punishment for Washington by gifting us one Mr. R Dunn for a run at Representative Schrier in the 8th. Whether you are in the 8th or not, we all need to start with the lifting to keep her in Congress.

  5. I wrote to Pramila Jayapal, my congresswoman, months ago urging her to accept the DelBene approach to BBB so that it could pass the Senate. I did not hear back from her until recently, after Senator Manchin announced he could not longer support the BBB as presently contemplated. Just as Jayapal had already done in public statements, she attacked Manchin in her letter to me, which was clearly a general letter drafted to many constituents. While Manchin obviously has a thick skin, personal attacks can preclude respectful negotiations. Jayapal seems to have a temper, as also evidenced in the high turnover among her staff. I believe her combination of progressive political beliefs and an inability to control her emotions or demands reduce her effectiveness.

  6. I believe the operative word here is “strategic” and I totally disagree with Ellen. What should strategy achieve? GAINS NOT LOSSES in the mid-term elections. As soon as Jayapal’s strident message started to appear on national media, I wrote her and told her that, in my opinion, her words and stance were not the strategy needed. I was afraid her position would undermine the Democratic party and its possibilities in the mid-terms. Sadly, I got immediate confirmation of my concern with virtually all analysts proclaiming that the Democratic party was in disarray and not the least bit united. And then all the things that David mentioned did come to pass. I believe Jayapal is using a worn out approach from the 60’s: yell, protest, grab the headlines. Instead we need a more reasoned and calm approach to making change. The work of a congressperson is to be done in the chambers and not in public. Interestingly enough, I agree with all the changes she advocates but she needs to be strategic about getting them. Half a loaf is ok for now if the Dems can add representatives in the house and senate. Then they have the base to extend the changes that are in fact needed.

  7. David,
    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Jayapal’s endorsement of loser Gonzalez over Harrell in the Mayor’s race. Or Oliver over Nelson in Council District 9 for that matter.
    What possessed Jayapal to do that? It’s certainly not typical; you don’t endorse one Democrat over another except maybe in a primary.
    It’s especially important now for Democrats to come together to resist Trumpism. I don’t think Jayapal did herself or the Party any good by endorsing the losers in Democrat versus Democrat contests. Quite gratuitous and bizarre, really.

    • Good points. Jayapal’s high profile also serves to alienate much of the state against her and Seattle. Her endorsements are mostly meant as signals of solidarity to her base voters and as a way to help leftist candidates decide to run and use the campaigns to spread their gospel. And Jayapal doesn’t always lose. For example her former staffer, Hamdi Mohamed, is now an inexperienced commissioner for the Port of Seattle, having defeated the highly knowledgeable Stephanie Bowman.

      • Jayapal’s endorsement wins in the Ports races is just an example of activism without regard for qualifications……….and DUMB VOTERS


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