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Democrats, Progressives And Moderates, Are Divided Over Infrastructure Plan


The most dramatic debate over President Biden's agenda in Congress is within his own party. Some Republicans, you'll recall, have signed onto part of that agenda. Just enough Republican senators support an infrastructure bill that the president wants. Republicans are almost unanimous against just about everything else, including a second, much larger budget resolution that touches on many issues. That means that Democrats need virtually all of their own party to vote yes. But Democrats don't agree. Moderates want less money, and progressives want more, to put it simply. We have called Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, who leads the progressive caucus and met with the president yesterday. Welcome.

PRAMILA JAYAPAL: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: How was the meeting yesterday?

JAYAPAL: It was a great meeting. The president was really clear that he wants the entirety of the Build Back Better Agenda on his desk. He wants us to deliver not only roads and bridges, but child care, paid leave, community college for people so they can get those jobs, making sure we take on health care and bring down the costs, negotiate pharmaceutical drugs and, of course, take on climate change. So his message to us was, I want this agenda, both bills - the smaller infrastructure bill and this Build Back Better Act - delivered to my desk. And he was very clear about that.

INSKEEP: OK. What is there to disagree about then?

JAYAPAL: Well, you know, there are just a very few. And I would just say, it's actually not - the vast majority of moderates in the caucus, including those in the most vulnerable districts across the country, know that, actually, we need to deliver all these things. This is what we promised. And they want to do it. But there are just a few who are insisting that they want the infrastructure bill to pass first. And if they do that, if we allow that to happen, then the rest of the agenda will never get done. It has always been let's do them both together. So that's where we are right now. We need a little bit more time. But I'm optimistic that we're going to get it done.

INSKEEP: I want to just clarify this for people. We've discussed it a little bit on the air before. But it's about a matter that, to the layman, might seem not to be really that important. You would like to do the big bill first and the smaller, more bipartisan bill second. Moderates want to do the smaller bill first and the big one second. I feel that you're essentially saying you don't trust moderate Democrats to go along with the big bill if they get the small one first. Is it that you don't trust your colleagues?

JAYAPAL: Well, I do think that there's a lack of trust on all sides. But I just want to remind listeners that the original deal when the Senate passed the infrastructure bill was that every Democratic senator would vote for that on the condition that the reconciliation bill passes first because it is a bigger bill. It has all of the big priorities in it that I mentioned. And so for the House to be able to move the reconciliation bill first is really important because otherwise, you know how it goes. If we get the infrastructure bill done, the pressure gets taken off. And we'll never be able to deliver child care, paid leave, everything else, to the American people. That was the promise that the president made and that we all campaigned on. And so that's why we want to stick to the agreement that was made out of the Senate, which is both bills together. And that means we've got to get the reconciliation bill done.

INSKEEP: It seems like the reconciliation bill, the larger bill, while still huge, is going to get smaller. We were just listening to a newscast where President Biden tells Joe Manchin - a much more moderate Democrat from West Virginia, Senator Joe Manchin - since you cannot sign onto $3.5 trillion of spending over a number of years, come back to me with a number that you can live with. Is it going to be acceptable to your progressives if that bill gets smaller?

JAYAPAL: Well, we've already put out what we want. That number doesn't come from nowhere. And, you know, the first thing I would say is, it's actually not - whatever the number is, it's not that number because we're paying for the whole thing. And so you could say it's a $0 bill because we're going to actually tax corporations and the wealthiest individuals to pay for those things. But secondly, we said we want universal child care, pre-K, housing, climate action, all of these things. And the cost of that is what is important. So if there's something that somebody wants to cut out from those priorities, they need to let us know because this is the president's agenda. It's the democratic agenda. And we're waiting to hear from them. What is it you want to cut out of that agenda?

INSKEEP: Have moderates not been very productive, then, or not very practical or pragmatic because they're not telling you what their bottom line is?

JAYAPAL: Well, that was the president's message to them. And that's what he told us as well. You need to tell us what - you can't just tell us what you're against. You got to tell us what you're for because this is what we all ran on. And we need to deliver because - one thing the president said was interesting. You know, he started the meeting off by saying that ultimately, what we do domestically matters so much to our international reputation. We've got to show people that government works and that people have opportunity and their lives can be transformed. That's what the Build Back Better Agenda is about.

INSKEEP: I want to think about the consequences of failure here. This is a highly unusual situation. Things are so partisan. Republicans, some of them have signed on to this one bill. They're not going to sign on to anything else, it would seem. The 2022 elections are already upon us, it would seem. There is this budget resolution, which you conceivably could pass, that has virtually all the rest of the president's agenda that can possibly be crammed into it crammed into it. Isn't it unthinkable to vote no?

JAYAPAL: I think it's absolutely unthinkable to vote no on the president's agenda, and that's the Build Back Better Act. And that's why we're saying, let's get this done. We need a couple - a little bit more time, just maybe two weeks, three weeks. But we can do this. And we can show that we, as the Democratic Party, can deliver for the people when they gave us the House, the Senate and the White House based on a set of promises we made.

INSKEEP: Representative Pramila Jayapal. Thanks.

JAYAPAL: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.