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Top progressive lawmaker urges White House to fight for larger spending bill

One of the most prominent progressive members of the US Congress has urged the White House to keep fighting for a larger domestic spending package in the final stretch of talks on Capitol Hill if it is to energise Democratic voters ahead of the midterms.

The comments from Cori Bush, the lawmaker from Missouri, came on the eve of Joe Biden’s announcement of a new “framework” to whittle down the size of his Build Back Better spending plan from $3.5tn to about $1.75tn. Biden unveiled the revised plan, which includes funding for universal pre-school for three- and four-year-olds and $555bn to address climate change, on Thursday morning.

The updated package did not include earlier proposals for 12 weeks of paid family leave, or provisions to allow the government to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices.

“For us it’s not OK to just get something done,” Bush told the Financial Times in an interview on Wednesday at her office on Capitol Hill. “What has happened for so long in this country [is] . . . just getting something done, making some folks happy. But then you miss out on helping the people who really, really need it.”

Bush’s comments came as Democratic leaders fret about their prospects in a closely watched race in Virginia next week, as well as next year’s midterm elections, when control of both houses of Congress will be hanging in the balance.

“If we can get Build Back Better and if we can get those programmes moving, I think that is one thing that will really help in the midterms,” she said.

Bush, a 45-year-old Black Lives Matter activist turned lawmaker, is a bellwether for the mood on the left of the Democratic party nearly one year after Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential elections.

The registered nurse and former childcare worker who represents Missouri’s first congressional district counts herself a member of the progressive “Squad” that includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

The group has been criticised for not moving more swiftly to compromise with moderate Democratic lawmakers in both the House and the Senate. The extended intraparty fight has potentially jeopardised Biden’s entire economic agenda, but Bush insisted the talks were unlikely to collapse.

“I don’t think that the Biden administration would be OK with saying, you know what, let’s just let it fall,” the congresswoman added.

Bush, a 45-year-old Black Lives Matter activist turned lawmaker, is a bellwether for the mood on the left of the Democratic party © Carla Cioffi

The White House has been locked in tense talks over how to scale back its sweeping social agenda to secure sign-off from Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, two conservative Democrats who wield outsized influence in a Senate that is split, 50-50, between Democrats and Republicans.

Bush indicated on Wednesday that she was trying to save provisions on healthcare and housing for the poor, as well as federal funding for historically black colleges and universities, and efforts to combat climate change. She added that this might be the last opportunity with Washington fully under Democratic control. “When is this going to happen again? I’m trying to grab everything.”

Bush admitted she was “frustrated” by the sway the two senators had over the party. “They are not in need of those resources, but there are people who are in need. It is life or death for some folks, and they are holding it up. That part is very disturbing to me.”

The congresswoman also offered a strong endorsement for any attempt to increase taxes on the wealthiest American corporations and individuals, as the White House and party leaders consider proposals such as a levy on billionaires and a minimum tax on the largest companies.

The so-called “billionaire tax” was not included in Biden’s framework, which instead suggested new revenues would be raised through the minimum corporate profits tax as well as a new tax surcharge for people making more than $10m a year.

“We need to tax the rich, undoubtedly,” said Bush. “Not only are they comfortable. Their children’s children are comfortable . . . Taking money from them won’t make them suffer . . . You take the money from them, well then they might not have the extra jet.”

Bush, a black woman who first became involved in local politics in 2014 amid civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police killing of Michael Brown, said her expectations for the Biden presidency were “honestly low” after she had endorsed his left-leaning rival, Bernie Sanders, in the 2020 primaries. But with the first anniversary of the president’s election on the horizon, she was nuanced in her assessment of his first nine months in office.

“Looking back to Cori of 2019-2020, I would say that [Biden] exceeded my expectations already. But as far as a sitting Congress member . . . I will say I’m not thrilled or really pleased,” she said in an office decorated with images of trailblazing black women including Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, and Marxist activist Angela Davis.

A vocal supporter of the defund the police movement, Bush pointed to the collapse in bipartisan negotiations earlier this year over police reform as a particular disappointment. “We couldn’t get a bill to actually affect a piece of what’s killing us, you know? So that is where it feels like, we’re not getting the investment into the things that we need.”

Bush also had strong words for US corporations that have outwardly embraced the Black Lives Matter movement since George Floyd’s killing last year, calling on America’s biggest companies to take real action to address race-based inequity.

“I remember one thing that was said to me before I came to Congress was are you going to be a show horse or work horse? . . . And for me, I was like, I’ll be a show workhorse, you know, I am going to show my work,” she said. “I think that is how our corporations need to be.”

Bush, who last month spoke publicly in a congressional hearing about her personal experience getting an abortion as a teenager, also warned about her concerns that Roe vs Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that enshrined a woman’s legal right to an abortion, could be overturned by a conservative-leaning court in the face of legal challenges from Texas and Mississippi.

She added that any rowing back on reproductive rights could send shockwaves through the Democratic party’s base of voters.

“After Trump’s win, you saw all of these women and other allies taking to the streets. This time . . . it is actual law that could be changing. I think that we will see people who . . . have never ever thought about politics, who are not connected to anyone, show up to speak out.”

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