Representative Pramila Jayapal looks solemn. She is one of the top leaders of the progressive movement in Congress, and she’s poised to finally effect change in a Democrat-controlled government after a decade of the party sharing power with Republicans. But right now, she is in no mood to celebrate.
After the passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package in mid-March, Jayapal was preparing to reintroduce her Medicare for All Act when, the afternoon before her announcement, a shooter killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, near Atlanta and reignited a national conversation about racism, sexism and violence against Asian Americans. When we spoke by Zoom on March 19, Jayapal had just come from a moment of silence on the House floor for the victims. “It’s been very tough,” she says, settling into a chair in her office with a sigh. “And also not surprising.”
The situation is, in some ways, devastatingly familiar to the Congresswoman. Jayapal, 55, who was born in India and came to the U.S. to attend college at Georgetown, got her start in politics as an activist in Seattle advocating for immigrants who experienced discrimination after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She built the largest immigrant-rights organization in Washington State, formed diverse coalitions, and sued George W. Bush’s Administration over its deportation of Somali immigrants.
She has said that experience taught her that even tragedies can be opportunities for change. But after years of agitating from the outside, Jayapal is a bona fide insider. After two years in the Washington State senate, she was elected to Congress in 2016, and she spent her first years fighting President Donald Trump at every turn. Now, as the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, she is one of the most influential officials of the Democrats’ left flank, and she has become a primary conduit between President Joe Biden and those in his party who think he’s an overly cautious centrist. Her journey from activist to powerful legislator was aided by an approach that melds progressive beliefs with pragmatic style—a combination that has won her respect from both Democratic camps.
But legislating in a government under unified Democratic control is a more nuanced project than pushing for ambitious proposals from the outside, or even from the minority party. Jayapal’s continued influence in D.C. depends on her ability to convince her caucus that compromise and incremental gains can sometimes be the best way forward–and on her success at making that true. “Governing is different than opposing,” she says, “and I think we are all getting used to the idea that we are governing.”
The central question for Jayapal and the left is how far Biden is willing to go. Biden doesn’t support Medicare for All—which is one of Jayapal’s signature policies—and he’s more moderate on most economic issues than Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, whom Jayapal endorsed in the presidential primary. Nor does Biden so far support eliminating the filibuster, the Senate rule that effectively requires 60 votes to pass most legislation, which Jayapal and other progressives want to scrap.
But Jayapal says she has never been interested in replicating the antagonistic relationship between the right-wing House Freedom Caucus and Republican leadership that divided the GOP starting in 2015. Instead of acting as an “opposition” arm, she says she wants to be a “proposition” one: proposing the most progressive ideas possible and framing them in ways that can persuade her colleagues—and the President—to support them.
She says that model worked for Biden’s COVID-19 relief legislation. The American Rescue Plan looked a lot like what progressive members wanted, and Biden got there in part because of the careful negotiating by people like Jayapal.
Throughout the process, Jayapal kept in close contact with House and Senate leadership, and her team spoke to the White House legislative-affairs staff almost daily, she says. When a $15 minimum-wage increase fell out of the package because of Senate rules, some Democrats considered withholding their votes entirely. Jayapal helped persuade those members to support the deal, and it passed almost entirely along party lines. “Progressives have been sort of pushed to the margins so often in politics that I think we may have gotten used to that,” Jayapal says. “And so people are very inclined to say, ‘Oh, this happened again—we didn’t get everything we wanted.'” But she taught her colleagues to realize, “We should take the win.”
It’s the strategy Jayapal plans to pursue on other policies—while still trying to bring Biden further left behind the scenes. Biden called Jayapal after the relief package passed to thank her for her help, she says, and while she thanked him for his leadership on the law in return, she also told him she still wants to see the minimum wage increased.
As Democrats begin to craft major infrastructure legislation, Jayapal plans to advocate for policies that will invest in America’s poorest communities. The rescue package was “taking on decades of neoliberal thinking,” she says, and she hopes it will show Americans the federal government should provide more equal opportunities for all.
Biden unveiled his infrastructure proposal on March 31, and before that, Jayapal and a small group of other progressive lawmakers met with the White House twice to talk strategy, she says. She wants the next bills to combat climate change, invest in childcare and paid-leave policies and take aim at prescription-drug costs. But the plan is already more contentious than COVID-19 relief, and hours after Biden released his outline, Jayapal called on him to be more ambitious. To be effective, Jayapal says progressives will need to focus on a limited number of what she calls “popular and populist” priorities.
Health care is an important area to Jayapal. She co-chaired the health care unity task force that Biden and Sanders established last summer, and she wants Biden to adopt the proposals they agreed to, including lowering the Medicare eligibility age and adding aggressive drug-pricing powers. “I have raised it now to everyone that I’ve had the opportunity to speak with,” she says, chuckling.
But Jayapal has learned she can’t always hold out for the purest solution the way she would have in her activist days. She knows Medicare for All isn’t close to passing Congress. So she’s focused on getting what she calls “foundational elements,” such as creating long-term-care jobs and expanding Medicare eligibility, into other bills while holding hearings on the larger plan. “I’m an immigrant woman, and I’ve spent my life working on civil rights,” she says, “so I feel a responsibility to do whatever I can to get people health care quickly.”
She knows none of her goals is going to be easy to accomplish, and time is short, with Republicans gunning to take back the House in 2022. But she is energized, and during difficult days she draws on the lessons from those early years of her career defending immigrant rights. As she pushes Biden to accept the left’s agenda piece by piece, she wants progressives to “never, ever let that undermine our ability to create the tipping point at which real change becomes possible,” she says. “That’s an organizer’s mentality: you never give up an opportunity to really build the movement so that when that tipping point comes, you’re ready.”
This appears in the April 12, 2021 issue of TIME.