President Joe Biden didn’t travel to Capitol Hill on Friday to close the deal, or to rally the troops through a final legislative gantlet.
There was nothing cinematic — or dramatic — about the trip down Pennsylvania Avenue for the 36-year Senate veteran, who has more than once informed aides of his unparalleled ability to read, speak to and corral lawmakers.
Instead, in remarks that lasted less than 30 minutes, Biden served a singular purpose: a presidential pressure relief valve.
In a week deemed an “inflection point” by top aides, where the President was rarely seen in public as his entire domestic agenda hung in the balance, it marked a seemingly low bar to clear for success.
There would be no miraculous deal to unlock the formula to move forward on the two key components Democrats are attempting to pass. The promised vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill would not materialize.
But after days of intraparty warfare and feverish late-night negotiations, a reset was desperately needed — and the best Biden could offer.
In delivering an unscripted and at times unwieldy message that the infrastructure vote wasn’t likely to happen — and the top-line cost of the economic and climate package was going to have to come down — the President made the bet that he can keep both sides of the intraparty feud on board in the critical days and weeks to follow.
White House and Democratic leaders will now launch an all-out effort to win over the two Senate Democratic holdouts, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, as they shape what the multitrillion-dollar economic and social package looks like — and how high its price tag will be.
Congressional Democrats and White House officials say progress was made this week getting all sides closer to an agreement on the massive economic, climate and health care spending package that Democratic leaders intend to pair with the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that’s passed the Senate already.
But in the House, moderate and progressive Democrats were engaged in a slow-motion game of chicken over the infrastructure vote, with moderates demanding a vote on the infrastructure bill this week that had been pledged by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — and progressives standing firm that they would vote it down without an agreement on the framework for the larger economic package.
On Friday, Biden sought the off-ramp.
It marked his most direct effort to date to cajole the House Democratic caucus at a moment when its members have grown increasingly frustrated about the amount of attention the President and his team have paid to their side of the Capitol. Though well received with several ovations, the appearance didn’t serve to salve those wounds entirely — with some saying afterward that his pep talk had actually exacerbated them.
But it did deliver a critical message and a consequential moment, multiple members said: Compromise now — or end up with nothing.
It’s likely too soon to say whether the debate this week is just a preamble to Democrats’ enacting their historic agenda or if it’s a feud that leads to legislative defeat, hobbling the President’s party ahead of a tough midterm election cycle with little to show for controlling both chambers of Congress and the White House.
‘Who knows what label I get’
After the roughly half hour meeting with the President, Democrats described a leader who was in his element and not working to change minds as much as remind members of their shared and unified goals as a caucus.
Throughout the infrastructure push, Biden has made clear to Democrats that party unity — or, in some participants’ interpretation, loyalty — is of utmost importance with only the slimmest of majorities in the House and Senate.
He tried to break down the stalemate and the tensions that have hung over the party for weeks, reminding them that he’s not on one side or the other. At one point, he made a reference to his own political ideology, saying, “Who knows what label I get.”
To which Pelosi replied: “President,” prompting loud laughter from the room.
Biden also talked about how he had redone his office to have paintings hung of Lincoln and FDR — “A deeply divided country and the biggest economic transformation,” said Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, “which is kind of the moment we’re in.”
White House officials think the President accomplished what he went to do on Capitol Hill: Remind Democrats of what is at stake while relieving some of the pressure that had built up over the last several days and reiterating his commitment to passing both pieces of legislation. With that done, officials believe, negotiators have a better environment to be able to push toward a deal.
“We’re going to get this done,” Biden told reporters as he left the meeting. “It doesn’t matter when. It doesn’t, whether it’s in six minutes, six days or six weeks — we’re going to get it done.”
‘As long as we’re still alive’
Even before Friday, Biden had alluded in recent days to negotiations slipping beyond the week’s end. With the stakes simply too high — on both the political and policy fronts — there are no plans to walk away.
“It may not be by the end of the week,” the President had responded when asked Monday how he would define success at the end of this week. “I hope it’s by the end of the week.”
“But as long as we’re still alive …,” Biden said before shifting course in his thought.
A self-imposed House deadline drove much of the talks this week, after Democratic moderates extracted a pledge from Pelosi last month to hold a vote on the infrastructure bill by September 27 before they took a vote on advancing the budget reconciliation.
That Monday deadline quickly slipped to Thursday. Biden met separately with both Manchin and Sinema — the Arizona Democrat went to the White House twice Tuesday to meet with administration officials. White House officials began shuffling around Capitol Hill, huddling with lawmakers and aides in search of a deal.
The President scrapped a planned trip to Chicago in order to stay in town and work on the budget talks. The negotiations extended to the annual Congressional Baseball Game between Democrats and Republicans at Nationals Park, where Biden made an appearance at the team dugouts — and Pelosi was spotted in the stands engaged in animated conversation on her cell phone.
On Thursday, the talks stretched throughout the day as Democrats held open the possibility of a vote. But by midnight, with no deal in reach, House Democratic leaders instead recessed and kept the legislative day open, hoping to technically pass the infrastructure bill by the deadline they had set.
Still, no agreement emerged on Friday, beyond that the talks needed to keep going.
“While great progress has been made in the negotiations to develop a House, Senate and White House agreement on the Build Back Better Act, more time is needed to complete the task,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to House Democrats on Friday evening, adding that Biden had received a “hero’s welcome” in his first visit to the House Democratic caucus.
Moderates gave Pelosi space to try to get liberals on board with the infrastructure package this week, but there could be lingering resentment at the end result.
“There are people in the caucus who are going to burn it all down for ideology, I suppose,” one moderate Democrat said.
“I am profoundly disappointed and disillusioned by this process,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida.
Progressive Democrats, however, held firm against delivering the votes for the infrastructure bill without an agreement on the bigger economic package, staying unified despite pressure to back a bill that is a key part of the White House’s agenda.
“The President said we’re going to get both bills done. And in order to get the BIF done, we have to get this agreement on the reconciliation,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
The first-year agenda
Recognizing the fleeting political moment in which he’s operating, Biden has approached his first year in office with an ingrained sense of urgency, according to officials and others familiar with the matter, who say he remains acutely aware that next year’s midterms could mark the end of his ability to enact the most sweeping elements of his agenda.
That has led, at times, to deep annoyance that the process is moving so slowly or that outside events have waylaid his team from its goals. Biden, who can sometimes be short with aides, has asked repeatedly for ways to simplify the White House messaging around the contents of the spending plan, which polls show are popular among Americans.
Amid the current crush of deadlines, one official described the President as “not really too high, not really too low” in his temperament: “He understands the tempo and pace in how these kinds of things play,” the official said.
Ultimately, Biden’s abiding belief is that matters will eventually come together and that his approach, honed over five decades, is far and away the most effective in the path to that outcome.
Still, for a President pursuing a plan on the scale of FDR’s New Deal — a book recounting the 32nd President’s first 100 days has been sitting behind Biden’s desk in the Oval Office for months — the process has at times felt laden with numbers instead of ideas.
Adding to the muddle were chaotic events that waylaid the President’s ability to speak about his agenda over the past several months, including a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and a series of natural disasters.
There has been palpable frustration about the messaging on Biden’s agenda, from the President on down, as warring Democrats have squared off in recent weeks, officials said. The irritation grows when top advisers are handed polling that shows a clear majority of Americans support the key planks of Biden’s agenda in isolation — including tax increases on corporations and the wealthy — as well as in a single package.
Messaging memos, briefings and a stream of polling have been directed toward congressional Democrats in recent weeks in an effort to shift the conversation from top-line numbers and intraparty disputes toward the widely popular elements Biden is hoping to see passed.
The President himself has sought to harness that during his own conversations with lawmakers. During a July appearance at a Senate Democratic lunch, he ticked through several of the proposals in the sweeping package and told the assembled lawmakers how much they might have meant to his father, Joe Biden Sr., whose plight he cites frequently as an example of middle-class perseverance.
At the same lunch, he said that expansions of child care and education would have improved the lives of the people he had grown up around in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and he urged senators to keep those people in mind as they considered his plan.
‘We want all the same things’
As talks progressed over the summer and into this week, Biden has repeatedly sought to emphasize those benefits to his interlocutors, even if negotiations ultimately wind their way back to top-line numbers. And he has insisted the measures are necessary to maintain the United States’ global competitiveness.
Armed with a stack of spreadsheets, Sinema has arrived at meetings with Biden and White House aides ready to tick through individual programs and associated tax increases. White House officials have said their meetings with Sinema are productive and detailed, even if Democrats outside the room gripe at the Arizona centrist’s opaque public stance.
The President has a much longer relationship with Manchin, with whom he worked extensively as vice president. “Biden is the only person from the administration Manchin would listen to,” one person familiar with the Obama-era dynamics said.
Manchin made clear this week that he would not support the $3.5 trillion price tag of the budget bill, and he has proposed a $1.5 trillion package instead. The White House has sought a middle ground, floating a roughly $2 trillion proposal that could range higher depending on how the key planks are structured ahead.
The Biden-Manchin relationship grew stronger during a 2013 debate over gun laws, which became a central priority of the Obama administration. During many conversations, the two talked extensively about the way forward. Biden would nudge Manchin about the legislation but in a fatherly way, a person familiar with the dynamic said, as Biden relayed regrets about some of the steps he had taken with the 1994 crime bill.
The dynamic has evolved since then, but Biden still does not engage in overt arm-twisting while meeting with lawmakers. White House officials said his approach is born from his years in the Senate, when heavy-handed lobbying rubbed him the wrong way. He does not attempt to explain to senators what their voters want, aware that it would appear presumptuous.
Still, he has asked Manchin and Sinema to provide top-line numbers they could agree to or to prioritize the programs they want to see in the final package. He has drawn no red lines and enters meetings looking to determine what is possible, officials said.
“He really is sincere,” Manchin said this week. He’s previously described Biden as “very good at listening” in their meetings, and acknowledged their differences over how much to spend.
“He’s always been so respectful,” Manchin said. “He said, ‘Hey, Joe, I never asked you to go against your convictions.’ He says we want all the same things.”
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