For weeks, conservative Democrats in Congress have prevented the passage of the Build Back Better Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. Congressmember Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has been a vocal critic of Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have stalled the bills and forced President Biden to radically scale back the price tag of his agenda. “All Democrats are essentially on board,” Omar says, “except for these two, who are essentially doing the bidding of Big Pharma, Big Oil and Wall Street.” The Build Back Better Act, which began at $3.5 trillion when Biden introduced the bill, has reportedly been lowered to half the original amount due to resistance in Congress. Progressive initiatives that are in danger of being dropped include free community college, extended paid family leave and lower prescription drug prices.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at how key elements of President Biden’s domestic agenda are in jeopardy. On Wednesday, Senate Republicans blocked passage of the Freedom to Vote Act. Not a single Republican supported the bill. Senate Democrats could pass the sweeping voting rights legislation, but only if they voted to end the filibuster. However, two conservative Democrats — Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — oppose doing so.
Manchin and Sinema have also forced President Biden to radically scale back the Build Back Better Act, which began as a proposed $3.5 trillion spending bill over 10 years to vastly expand the social safety net and combat the climate crisis. Biden has reportedly lowered the topline price tag on the package to $1.75 trillion — half the original bill. Manchin wants the bill to be even smaller, pushing for $1.5 trillion over 10 years. Initiatives that could be dropped include free community college, extended paid family leave and an initiative to lower prescription drug prices. Manchin has also demanded Democrats strip out funding for the Clean Electricity Performance Program, a critical climate initiative to replace coal- and gas-fired power plants with renewable energy sources. Democrats are also moving away from proposals to increase the tax rate on the rich and corporations.
On Wednesday, Mother Jones magazine reported Manchin has been privately telling associates he’s considering leaving the Democratic Party and declaring himself a, quote, “American Independent” if he doesn’t get his way in slashing the size of the Build Back Better Act. Manchin rejected the report.
We go now to Washington, where we’re joined by Congressmember Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who’s been a vocal critic of Senator Manchin’s efforts to obstruct passage of both the Build Back Better Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. After the voting rights bill failed in the Senate Wednesday, Congressmember Omar tweeted, “The filibuster—and the Democratic Senators who continue to uphold it—are killing our democracy.”
Congressmember Ilhan Omar, welcome back to Democracy Now!
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Great to be with you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: You have to wonder at this point, when we talk about “President Joe,” if we’re talking about President Joe Biden or President Joe Manchin. He is one senator but holds so much power. Though the $3.5 trillion spending — the $3.5 trillion spending bill, talking about scaling it back to $1.7 trillion, that’s only a bit over the $1.5 trillion that this one senator has demanded. Can you talk about the significance of his power and also how it is related to him being the number one recipient of oil, gas and coal money in the U.S. Senate?
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Well, thank you so much, Amy, for having me.
I think it is really important for people to understand just the level of obstruction that this one senator is causing to the agenda of the president and everything we are trying to accomplish as Democrats on behalf of the American people. You know, so, for so long people have said, “Washington is corrupt. You know, they’re not watching out for the interests of the people.” And what’s playing out right now with these senators really is giving people a front-row seat to what they have always talked about.
And we have to get past this. We have to be able to bring these senators on board. We have to be able to accomplish this agenda, because, truly, what is on the line? It’s investment in child care. It’s investment in expanding paid family leave. It’s an agenda to try to get vision, dental and hearing paid for for seniors. It’s trying to address the climate crisis so that there is something for the future generation. It’s, you know, trying to do everything that we can so that people in our communities can feel the impact of their government. And as you said, you know, all Democrats are essentially on board, except for these two, who are essentially doing the bidding of Big Pharma, Big Oil and Wall Street.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Representative Omar, how do you think that these senators — you said it’s essential to bring them on board. What can Democrats do to persuade them to get on board?
REP. ILHAN OMAR: We have to continue talking. You know, this agenda is too big to fail. We’ve made these promises to the American people for a really long time. Investment in child care, paid family leave, in home and community-based care, these are things that are not just going to help particular communities, but it will help all communities across this country. And if we do not continue to have this conversation to move them along so that we can get it done, then we will not only fail to get our agenda done, but we would have failed the American people.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Omar, I wanted to continue on this issue of Senator Manchin’s power by talking about his business holdings in West Virginia. The intercept recently published a report headlined, “Joe Manchin’s Dirty Empire.” It says, quote, “For decades, Manchin has profited from a series of coal companies that he founded during the 1980s. His son, Joe Manchin IV, has since assumed leadership roles in the firms, and the senator says his ownership is held in a blind trust. Yet between the time he joined the Senate and today, Manchin has personally grossed more than $4.5 million from those firms, according to financial disclosures. He also holds stock options in Enersystems Inc., the larger of the two firms, valued between $1 and $5 million.” So, maybe this isn’t a matter so much of ideology, but, straightforward, the amount of money that he stands to make or lose based on this Build Back Better Act. He has demanded the stripping out of the section on renewable energy. Can you talk about this and if this is raised in dealing with him, and what it would mean if he did leave the Democratic Party? Or do you think it’s an empty threat?
REP. ILHAN OMAR: I think it is important for these connections to be made, and certainly for his constituents to recognize this. You know, we have a representative democracy, where you elect someone to represent your interests, not the interests of corporations and not their own interests. This, to me, sounds like legalized corruption. And if it was happening, you know, anywhere else in the world, we would be appalled by it. But the fact that it continues to happen, not just with Manchin but so many others, you know, begs the question: How are we going to continue to have the kind of democracy that we can be proud of, and talk about transparency, accountability and ending corruption to other parts of the world, when we allow it to happen within our own country? You know, the devastation economically that is visible in West Virginia, when you talk about all kinds of measures, it’s the bottom of the 50 states almost always. And to have a senator that isn’t focusing on creating the kind of investments that will uplift the communities that he represents is something that we need to seriously address.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about what’s in the act and what’s not in the act, and what are lines in the sand, if you will. I mean, you’ve got the proposed cuts being cutting free community college for two years, cutting the Clean Electricity Performance Program, reducing paid family leave — now at the federal level, there isn’t paid family leave, but it would go from 12 weeks to four weeks — child tax credit, funding for home care. Can you talk about those that are now threatened, but also what remains, like universal pre-K, like Medicare expansion, etc., and what you think is significant here, and how much power the Progressive Caucus has? You’re the largest caucus in Congress.
REP. ILHAN OMAR: So, first of all, I just will say, you know, it’s not done until it’s done. Nothing has been agreed to by all parties, so I can’t really say what is in and what is out at the moment. You know, we’re obviously still negotiating. We’re obviously still having these conversations. Some of the things that you had mentioned would be some red lines for some of our members within the Progressive Caucus, and they have raised those concerns. And so, we’re still at the drawing board and trying to finalize a deal that can get the support of the Progressive Caucus and can have the support of these senators, so that we are able to actually pass this piece of legislation.
What we are arguing for is that four principles should be used by Congress in the final package. We want to make sure that there is — there are transformative investments, that whatever piece of legislation we end up voting on touches people’s lives immediately, that they provide universal benefits, and that they keep the president’s commitment to racial equity. And so, whether we end up cutting the duration of the investment or not, you know, we will see. But right now things are still up in the air, and conversations are still taking place. So, I wouldn’t say this is out, this is in, just yet.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Representative Omar, we’d like to move on now to the Freedom to Vote Act. On Wednesday, Senate Republicans blocked debate on the Freedom to Vote Act, and you tweeted in response, quote, “The filibuster—and the Democratic Senators who continue to uphold it—are killing our democracy.” Could you talk about what happened and elaborate on what you said?
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yeah. We know, obviously, that our democracy is under threat. And if we do not address the kind of challenges that are posed to our democracy with legislation, we are — you know, we are going to fail our democracy. And we’re seeing Democrats in the Senate not understand that urgency. We have these two senators that are beholden more to this filibuster, that is Senate procedure and not codified in our Constitution, that are willing to uphold that and not uphold the resiliency and health of our democracy so that it could continue to flourish.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Representative Omar, another issue on which you’ve been vocal has to do with the increasing reports of what’s being called modern-day slavery in Libya: the widespread abuse of migrants in detention centers there. You wrote in a press statement, quote, “The U.S. needs a comprehensive strategy to address the ongoing human trafficking and modern day slavery crisis in Libya.” Could you talk about what you know of what’s happening, and what strategy you’re proposing the U.S. pursue?
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yeah. Thank you so much for that question. What’s happening in Libya is truly heartbreaking. As someone who comes from one of the countries in Africa where people are being enslaved in Libya, I and so many others have, you know, personally been touched. We know family members, we know friends, we know people who are personally impacted in Libya. We have seen routine reports of rampant abuse, torture, sexual violence, extortion of migrants in Libya from sub-Saharan African countries. It is really painful that it is not getting the attention and response that it needs. And, you know, instead of welcoming thousands of refugees fleeing violence and instability, the Libyan Coast Guards hand migrants over to militias who systematically torture, rape, abuse and enslave them. The European Union is making it worse by turning away migrants and, instead, arming these same militias that are committing these abuses.
The United States hasn’t had a comprehensive strategy to engage and to address this ongoing human trafficking crisis and this modern-day slavery. I’ve met with representatives from United Nations orgs that are dealing with this situation. And what they’re asking for is for the United States to step up, for us to help create a strategy, and for us to have a conversation with the European Union, because, you know, what’s taking place in Libya is a human rights crisis. It’s a human tragedy. It’s not something that we should allow to happen today. And it is something that needs the attention of the United States and other countries, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Two questions, one about vaccine equity in the world, what some call vaccine apartheid. As you heard in our headlines, you know, the FDA is quickly approving vaccines for children and also boosters to people as young as 40 years old. Can you talk about the issue of vaccine availability in the world? While the Western nations are massively vaccinating their populations, in some places, particularly the continent you come from, from Africa, we’re looking at 1% and 2% and 5% of the population vaccinated, not because of choice, but because they don’t have access. While President Biden has supported the TRIPS waiver at the WTO, it’s a question of expending political capital to force other countries, like Germany and Britain, where the pharmaceutical companies are based that are making billions, do the same. Can you talk about what has to be done?
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yes, you’re right. We do have to spend political capital on this. This is, you know, a catastrophe. Vaccine apartheid is real. There are so many people across the world who are celebrating, you know, 5%, 10%, 20% vaccination, because that is the best that they can do with the limited resources that they have, while their wealthy counterparts are not doing their part, and providing not just an overall vaccination, but even boosters, as you said, which is happening here in the United States, and which will rapidly expand. Booster shots are not just going to be available for those who are at risk and older than 40. We’re going to provide it to everyone soon. And we are even providing vaccinations to young children now, when so many people around the world can’t even vaccinate their most vulnerable members of their communities.
So, yes, it is the right thing for the United States to spend its political capital, to say, “Let’s come together as a world and address this pandemic,” that doesn’t recognize boundaries and doesn’t recognize that someone is wealthy and someone is poor. Everyone has suffered from it. And, you know, as you know, I’ve lost my father to COVID-19. There are so many people who have been tragically touched by this pandemic. And we are now at a moment where we can help those within our borders and extend that aid to others in different countries.
AMY GOODMAN: And our deep condolences again on the loss of your father. Do you think that the U.S. should be requiring Moderna to release its recipe, given how heavily subsidized, publicly subsidized their research was?
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yes. And I’ve said that from the start. But at this moment, Amy, it is going to take a long time for that recipe to be utilized, and a lot of these countries don’t have those resources. So what we’re asking for is for the excess amounts that exist in some of the wealthiest countries, including ours here in the United States, to be donated and for that transfer to happen in an urgent matter to every corner of the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Congressmember Omar, you’re calling on President Biden to intervene in the construction of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline in your state, in northern Minnesota, and to protect Indigenous sovereignty and the environment. In this last week, more than 600 people, overwhelmingly Indigenous, were arrested in Washington, D.C., in this Native American-led climate protest. You also have The Guardian newspaper revealing that Enbridge paid Minnesota police $2.4 million in reimbursements, all costs tied to the arrests and surveillance of hundreds of water protectors. Can you talk about this and what needs to happen now?
REP. ILHAN OMAR: The president has to intervene. I have called on the president to intervene to stop this pipeline. Just yesterday, the president addressed our Boundary Waters and talked about tribal sovereignty and treaty rights. And it was astonishing, really, to hear these statements coming in regards to the wilderness and the Boundary Waters, when we are not using a similar statement in regards to Line 3 and what it means for the northern — for northern Minnesota and our Indigenous brothers and sisters, and what it means for their tribal sovereignty, what it means for the treaty rights, which are supreme laws in this land, and what it means for their livelihood, what it means in regards to their wildlife. I mean, the Anishinaabe communities in Minnesota say it is their culture, that they were told to go where food grows on water, and wild rice is their life. It’s their culture. It’s their tradition. It’s basically their existence. And we don’t have this president addressing the urgency of stopping this pipeline, that will essentially destroy their land and ultimately pollute everybody that has access to the Mississippi.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Congressmember Ilhan Omar, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Minnesota congressmember representing the 5th Congressional District. Her memoir is titled This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman. You can go to democracynow.org to see our extended interview with Congressmember Omar about her memoir.
And a quick correction in our Guantánamo Bay headline: Asadullah Haroon Gul is the first prisoner in 10 years, not two years, to win a habeas corpus argument. He is the Guantánamo prisoner.
Next up, we look at Senator Joe Manchin’s “dirty empire” in West Virginia. Stay with us.