How did the House’s top progressive Democrat play her hand so badly?

Pramila Jayapal has made some very questionable decisions

Eric Garcia
Washington DC
Tuesday 25 October 2022 20:31 BST
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On Monday, 30 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a surprising letter to the White House that called on Joe Biden to pursue direct negotiations with Russia to bring an end to its war with Ukraine.

“Given the destruction created by this war for Ukraine and the world,” the group wrote, “as well as the risk of catastrophic escalation, we also believe it is in the interests of Ukraine, the United States, and the world to avoid a prolonged conflict. For this reason, we urge you to pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.”

The letter was surprising not just because it marked the first time that prominent members of Biden’s own party had called for a change to his strategy in Ukraine, but because it came from progressives. Along with Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal – the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus – as well as Squad members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Jamaal Bowman, Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush, among the signatories were even more loyal Democratic foot soldiers such as Jamie Raskin and Nydia Velasquez.

In the end, the letter proved so provocative that Jayapal issued a follow-up statement meant to clarify the group’s position. “Let me be clear: we are united as Democrats in our unequivocal commitment to supporting Ukraine in their fight for their democracy and freedom in the face of the illegal and outrageous Russian invasion, and nothing in the letter advocates for a change in that support,” she said. “As we also made explicitly clear in our letter and will continue to make clear, we support President Biden and his administration’s commitment to nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.”

But Jayapal’s about-face is just the latest stumble to raise eyebrows, even in her own conference.

Throughout much of last year, she led the progressive caucus as it pushed to pass Build Back Better before the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed. Then, days after Republicans flipped the governorship in Virginia, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi strong-armed progressives to pass the infrastructure bill. That led to an hours-long huddle among the caucus that dragged on late into the evening in the Longworth House Office Building; in the end, every member of the progressive caucus save for the Squad voted for the bill.

For her part, Jayapal walked onto the House floor to cast her vote alongside Representative Josh Gottheimer, a moderate New Jersey Democrat. Biden even called Jayapal’s mother in India as a gesture of gratitude.

But the decision to back the bill came to look like a miscalculation for progressives. A month later, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia summarily killed the behemoth version of Build Back Better. Some progressives – including AOC – said that Manchin had played their colleagues. And even though Manchin eventually resurrected a reconciliation bill — this time christened the Inflation Reduction Act — the legislation was far less comprehensive and ambitious than what progressives had originally hoped to pass.

In this latest instance, Jayapal has first saddled progressives with an unpopular position that makes it look like they would undermine Ukrainian efforts to defend themselves, and then forced them to backpedal. With the end of this Congress nigh, one might wonder why Jayapal misallocated her power in such crucial moments.

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