The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Broken promises cannot deter the path to Build Back Better

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) speaks with journalists on Capitol Hill on June 15. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat, represents Washington’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House and is chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Nearly a year ago, President Biden laid out his Build Back Better agenda: a broad vision to meet the individual and collective challenges Americans face, necessarily ambitious to address crises both created and exposed by the pandemic. For most of 2021, Democrats worked to pass legislation that realizes that vision. The president negotiated with Congress, including Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) directly. Sen. Manchin committed to the president — who relayed that commitment to House members — that he would support the legislative framework unveiled on Oct. 28.

But on Dec. 20, Sen. Manchin went back on his commitment to the president and seemingly killed the bill on national television. In a town where your word is everything, this was a stunning rebuke of his own party’s president.

Despite that, we must move forward. The president’s agenda is even more urgent today. The omicron variant is surging as covid-19 has once again disrupted people’s ability to work, care for children and elders, access medical care and make ends meet. We simply cannot abandon our vision.

To craft a path forward, it’s important to look at how we got here. Last spring, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) called for one comprehensive bill to deliver the president’s agenda. But seeking a show of bipartisanship, the White House, at the urging of conservative Democratic senators, split the legislation into two vehicles: what eventually became the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Build Back Better Act. The latter contained 85 percent of the president’s domestic agenda.

This decision’s effect was to push Build Back Better — and the communities it would uniquely benefit — to the back of the line. People of color, women and young people helped deliver the White House and Congress to Democrats, but their needs were consistently delayed in search of bipartisanship.

Low-hanging bipartisan provisions were prioritized over the transformational: child care to allow women to return to the workplace, assistance for caregiving jobs primarily held by immigrant women of color, climate action, lower drug prices, a road map to citizenship for immigrants, and tax reforms taking on special interests. Dividing the president’s agenda gave corporate America a chance to dedicate itself to killing Build Back Better. When Senate Democrats passed the infrastructure bill without a commitment of support for Build Back Better, the CPC was left to protect the latter — often in the face of remarkable pressure.

Yet a majority of our caucus twice held the line, refusing to pass infrastructure until serious negotiations took place on Build Back Better. President Biden worked with the two senators and the House to craft the Oct. 28 framework agreement. The CPC held the line again to translate the framework into legislation, inking an agreement with six remaining holdouts among House Democrats to ensure our chamber passed both bills. A majority of our members relied on the president’s word that he had a commitment from Sen. Manchin to support the framework. We believed we had reached our point of maximum leverage — and if we held up infrastructure again, Sen. Manchin would walk away from Build Back Better entirely and possibly even both proposals.

The Progressive Caucus will continue to work toward legislation for Build Back Better, focused on keeping it as close to the agreed-upon framework as possible. At the same time, we are calling on the president to use executive action to immediately improve people’s lives. Taking executive action will also make clear to those who hinder Build Back Better that the White House and Democrats will deliver for Americans. The CPC will soon release a plan for these actions, including lowering costs, protecting the health of every family, and showing the world that the United States is serious about our leadership on climate action.

We can’t be naive about the difficulty of once again negotiating with someone who has not kept his commitments. But legislation remains the best path for delivering enduring relief. Nor can we underestimate the urgency to act, especially as covid is surging and so many constituencies — seniors, people of color, working and young people — are disillusioned. Democrats must prove that their voices and their votes matter, and that we can produce tangible economic assistance.

The Progressive Caucus has always believed in leaving no one behind. We call on our governing partners to join us in advancing that philosophy, guided by racial, gender and economic justice — not corporations’ bottom lines. This moment for the Biden administration and Congress can either lead to our greatest failure or our greatest success. If we use every tool at our disposal to redouble our efforts to deliver for our communities, with the most urgent needs of the American people as our guide, success is possible.