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“A Moral Crisis”: Reverend William Barber on Why Congress Must Pass $3.5 Trillion Bill

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Activists continue to call on Democratic leaders to pass the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act, which expands the social safety net and includes measures to address the climate crisis. Progressives remain resolute in their opposition to passing a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill unless it is paired with the larger package. The Build Back Better Act represents “economic investment in the lives of poor and low-wealth people in this country,” says Reverend William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. “The question here is not 'What will it cost if we do this?' What will it cost if we don’t do this?”

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StoryApr 07, 2020Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders & Fight for a Progressive Future
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Democratic leaders are struggling to pass two major pieces of legislation: a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act, a $3.5 trillion, 10-year package that would expand the social safety net and combat the climate emergency. On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer huddled with President Biden in the Oval Office, as fractures within the Democratic Party threatened to derail Biden’s legislative agenda. Progressive New York Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke about the divisions on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show last night.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: We have two bills at present: one which covers — which underfunds most priorities across the board, so there are very few priorities that even get the full funding that they even need, and then there is the larger, what is known as the budget bill, reconciliation bill. That has the stuff that you’re going to feel in your everyday life: universal pre-K; we’re talking about college, you know, community colleges; we’re talking about expansion of Medicare, and we’re debating including vision and dental in Medicare, conversations about lowering the age of it; robust climate action, renewable energy. All of that stuff that you’re going to feel in your everyday life is in what is known as the Build Back Better Act, aka the reconciliation bill.

Now, when we were discussing the scope of this bill way earlier in the year, this was the original infrastructure bill. And we have a vast majority of Democrats, about 96%, that are in agreement of the entire agenda. Now a very small handful of Democrats, about 4% of the party, are trying to essentially split these two priorities up, you know, and I personally don’t think it’s an accident that the ones that a lot of lobbyists love are in the much smaller, underfunded bill, that don’t make prescription drugs easier to buy and more affordable, etc. And what they want to do is split them apart, force a vote on the first one, and because we have such narrow margins in the Senate and the House, you know, the read that we have is that they’ll just dump the second one, leave the other one out to dry and just never actually vote on it.

And so, the way that we bring our two parts of the caucus together is by saying, “You know what? My bill is bound up in your bill, and your bill is bound up in my bill. So, do I love this very, you know, what I would argue, a conservative, underfunded bill? No. But I will vote for it if we pursue them both together.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s New York Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on MSNBC last night.

For more, we’re joined by the Reverend Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairers of the Breach. Last month, the campaign met with Speaker Pelosi to, quote, “put a face on the urgent needs of this moment.”

And I think, Reverend Barber, that is what’s missing, is, so often the corporate media, the mainstream media, takes on the language of — I won’t call them “moderate” Democrats. I mean, you have, for example, Senator Manchin in West Virginia — you’ve been holding protests in his state — who is the largest recipient of oil and gas funds of any senator in the country. It’s not that he is a moderate — a conservative corporate Democrat perhaps. And then you have Arizona Senator Sinema. Arizona and West Virginia, some of the poorest states in the country. She has a fundraiser with those who are opposed to restoring taxes on the wealthiest people in this country, although she used to be Ralph Nader’s campaign head in Arizona. What do you make of this, as she goes back and forth from fundraisers to the Oval Office, but they don’t lay out their alternative plan versus, as AOC puts it, 96% of the Democrats?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, I think we, first of all — you’re right — have to stop using this crazy liberal versus moderate versus conservative language. This is not about that. This is about a moral crisis in our nation, a crisis of civilization, a crisis of our democracy.

If you think right now, we have two senators blocking voter suppression — dealing with voter suppression and protecting the process to vote that 56 million Americans used in the last election. And those same two senators are working on behalf of corporate greed and the corporations to block the economic investment in the lives of poor and low-wealth people in this country — which, by the way, is not even what we need. We need, actually, according to the Economic Policy Institute, $10 trillion over 10 years. And then you have these two senators, one from Arizona, Sinema — over 3 million people in her state are poor and/or low-wealth, 830,000 are uninsured, and 1.2 million make less than $15 an hour. In West Virginia, 42% of the state is poor and low-wealth, over 750,000 people; 350,000 make less than $15. And we could have seen this coming when Manchin and Sinema blocked raising the living wage earlier this year to $15. And Sinema danced when she did it.

And the mistake that I think Democrats are making — and we said this to the president and his handlers. We offered to bring to the White House poor and low-wealth people of every geographical area and diverse racially, with moral and religious leaders, economists, to have a meeting in the White House, and then for the people to come out and say, “You are voting against me.” They need to have people who need living wages at the mic. They need to have healthcare, home care workers at the mic. They need to have people who are facing homelessness and eviction at the mic. They need to have people that would benefit from child care at the mic. They need to have people who need living wages at the mic. But instead, what we got trapped in is whether it’s going to be $3.5 trillion, which is only $310 [sic] billion a year. And we’ve already spent $20-some trillion in war since September 11, so it’s not like we don’t have the money. We’re getting trapped into whether it’s 3.5 or 2.1, rather than showing America what this is really about. This is about those who stand with you versus those who stand with the corporate greed and the Koch brothers. I don’t know why in the world Democrats want to claim always to care for low and — poor and low-wealth people but then don’t want poor and low-wealth people to speak. Someone told us the other day that they were afraid that if they put poor and low-wealth people out front, that it might turn Americans off. That is absolutely ridiculous, when 140 million people in this country are poor and low-wealth in this nation today and 700 people are dying a day from poverty and more have fallen into poverty since COVID.

We have a crisis of civilization and a crisis of democracy. And we have a serious messaging problem when it comes to Democrats. And it seems that they would rather argue the numbers. Even, lastly, they say this is about whether or not you support the president. I love President Biden. Thank God for him. No, it’s not. This is about whether you support the people who have been hurt the most during COVID, the people who were the first to get infected, the first to get sick, the first to die, the people who have suffered in poverty and low wealth for years. The question here is not “What will it cost if we do this?” What will it cost if we don’t do this? And that’s the moral argument that we should be raising in this time. And it’s not about moderate versus liberal versus conservative. It’s about right versus wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: And the whole issue of who is represented — I mean, I think the polls show more than 70% of the people of this country support the $3.5 trillion, when asked about the issues that that bill, the Build Back Better Act, represents: issues of child care, of healthcare, pre-K, of climate action, of helping small businesses, of restoring power to working-class people, poorer people in the United States. This is overwhelmingly popular. And it’s so fascinating that the people who have come to the support of President Biden in the Congress are the Progressive Caucus, by far the largest caucus in the U.S. Congress — right? — about a hundred members. Pramila Jayapal heads that. And they are not necessarily the people that supported Biden as a candidate, but they are his fiercest defenders right now when it comes to this bill and saying, “If you don’t support this now, it’s going to fall by the wayside. And instead, roads and bridges will be paid for, but not all the other stuff that benefits the vast majority of people in this country.”

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Yeah, and roads and bridges and most of that money will go again to the corporations, and people know that. You know, Manchin wants a utility grid and bridges, but he doesn’t want to help, for instance, the 350,000 people in his own state who make less than $15 an hour, the people we have met with in his state who are protesting, who are poor and low-wealth people from Appalachia.

And you’re exactly right: Pramila Jayapal and Barbara Lee and others and them have come to the rescue, and they’re raising the right issues, that this is not about these normal Washington, D.C., moments. We’re in the middle of COVID. We’re in the middle of a pandemic where thousands and hundreds of thousands of people have died. And this COVID has exposed the fissures of poverty and race. And if there’s ever been a time we want to at least take a step in the right direction — we think in the Poor People’s Campaign it ought to be much more, and we have backing for that — but we at least ought to take this step.

But again, Amy, the big problem is that you keep saying this is who you’re for, but you don’t put the who in front of the American people. We said to President Biden and to the Democrats, “What you should do is, number one, go to West Virginia and meet with people in Appalachia who would benefit. Just go right in the heart of Manchin’s state. You’re the president of the United States. Go to Texas. Go to Arizona and meet with those people, and then come back and go to the well of the Congress, like Abraham Lincoln did, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt did and Lyndon Baines Johnson and Kennedy, and say, 'There are three infrastructures we must protect. This is not about Democrat versus Republican. This is about this country and the people of this country. First infrastructure, the infrastructure of our democracy, which is voting rights. Second infrastructure, the infrastructure of our daily lives, which is healthcare and wages and education and protecting the climate and more housing. And the third infrastructure is the infrastructure of our bridges and our waters and our technology. And we're not going to do it all. We’re not going to separate it, because this is who it will hurt.’ And then you point to the balcony, and you have people, and you tell their stories. You have that white farmer, poor farmer. You have that person from Appalachia. You have that person from the Delta of Mississippi. You have that person from the poor areas of the industrialized states of Michigan and Ohio. You put a face on this, so that it’s not just about numbers, but it’s about real people. And you give the people the mic.”

Imagine if America right now was hearing press conferences where the Democrats and those supporting it and the president was not just meeting with Sinema four times, but he actually had in the White House people from their state and meeting with them and telling them, and then those people came out and advocated for the bill, those people came out in front of the mic. That’s the kind of moral power and agency that poor and low-wealth people have. And I don’t understand for the life of me why his handlers are blocking this. We’ve offered it to them for months. I don’t understand why in the world they don’t let the people speak.

Abraham Lincoln — when we met with Pelosi, she reminded us Abraham Lincoln said public sentiment is everything. This notion of holding the line, you know where that came from? That came from a woman from Texas and a woman from West Virginia that said it to Nancy Pelosi. “Hold the line. Do not allow one of these bills to happen without the other. Don’t throw us under the bus. Don’t run over us. We’ve already been hit hard through COVID.” These are the people they should speak. And I pray that if this goes past this week, Democrats will retool their messaging, will retool their focus, will let the people speak.

We can help them. We can bring the people that could turn the conscience of this nation, because this is not about, again, Democrat — I mean, moderate versus liberal. This is about what kind of democracy we’re going to be and who we’re going to be. And we need to get away from just “Is it $3.5 trillion or $2.5 trillion?” Who will be hurt? What will happen if we don’t do this? What is the cost, long term, if we do not do this, if we do not lift the people that have been so beaten down, even before COVID, and have been beaten down even worse after COVID? That is the question of our day. And that is the crisis of this democracy that we’re in right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Dr. William Barber, I want to thank you for being with us, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairers of the Breach.

When we come back, about four women are killed by their partners every day in the United States. The coverage of the death of a young white woman, Gabby Petito, has gotten enormous amount of media coverage. What about the coverage of the missing Black women, of the missing Native American women? We’ll host a roundtable discussion around the country. Stay with us.

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