Democrats say Biden must get more involved in budget fight

President Biden speaks to reporters following a luncheon with Senate Democrats at the Capitol to discuss an infrastructure plan on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.
Greg Nash

Democrats expect to see President Biden get more intimately involved in the messy budget reconciliation process in the House and Senate to ensure that the $3.5 trillion social spending package gets across the finish line.  

Biden for the last month has been occupied by major crises — namely the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the COVID-19 pandemic — and has largely left it to congressional officials to work out the details of the package. 

Yet to get the measure through a Congress narrowly held by his party, Democrats believe Biden needs to publicly and privately put more muscle into resolving disputes within his party. 

“He has to get involved for a lot of reasons,” said one Democratic strategist who talks to the White House. “He doesn’t want to apply pressure, but he knows he has to in his own way. This is a massive legacy item for him.”

“He doesn’t want it to be winnowed down like Obama’s bill,” the strategist said, referring to the 2009 stimulus legislation.

That legislation cost more than $700 billion, a huge amount at the time, but might have been even larger if Democrats had been able to win more support from Republicans and centrists in their own party.

Biden will take a big step toward getting more involved on Wednesday. He is expected to meet separately with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to hear their concerns about the reconciliation package. 

Those close to the White House say Biden will continue speaking to key players involved in the congressional battle. He’s likely to travel and speak about the legislation when the time is right, the sources said.

Biden has already been plugging his economic agenda, and specifically the aspects of it that address climate change, during his first official trip out West as president this week.  

“I think Biden will be involved but probably more behind the scenes until he needs to apply public pressure. We’re still in the posturing and positioning phase right now,” added Democratic strategist Joel Payne.  

Payne predicted Biden would likely do some kind of “road show” to sell the package.  

“I think when he needs to, he will use the bully pulpit of the White House to apply pressure and get it over the finish line,” he said.  

The White House says that Biden and other officials are regularly engaged with lawmakers on Capitol Hill about his agenda. But officials have kept Biden’s conversations with lawmakers largely private, including avoiding saying whether he’s spoken to Manchin, a centrist who has aired complaints about the $3.5 trillion price tag of the reconciliation package. 

“The president and White House officials are in constant communication and contact with members on the Hill, their staff, and this has been, for us, all hands on deck in making sure the president’s agenda moves forward,” White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday, after declining to confirm any calls with Manchin. “We’re continuing to do that.” 

The success of the reconciliation bill depends on getting support from centrist Democrats like Manchin, Sinema and Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.) without alienating progressives, who see $3.5 trillion as the baseline price tag for the reconciliation package.  

It’s clear that the ongoing negotiations are on Biden’s mind. During a speech Monday evening in Sacramento, he swatted away concerns about the package’s price tag, saying that it would be “as much as $3.5 trillion” but that it would be spread over 10 years. 

“He supports $3.5 trillion, which is a bill that he proposed, legislation that he proposed, and he’s going to continue to work with Congress in pushing that agenda through,” Jean-Pierre said Tuesday, declining to say Biden’s words are an indication he is open to a smaller package. 

Democrats say it will soon be necessary for Biden to get more publicly engaged in the process. 

“The fact of the matter is, a lot of this stuff right now, properly, should be handled by Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader [Charles] Schumer. However, as we get deeper into the process, I only assume that the president is going to have to get more personally involved,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who was a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).  

Manley, like other Democrats, predicted that the package will ultimately fall below $3.5 trillion but that the number Manchin has floated‚ $1.5 trillion‚ won’t cut it. 

“At some point the president himself is going to have to weigh in on that,” Manley said. 

Speaking to reporters last week, Biden expressed confidence he could get Manchin on board.

“Joe at the end has always been there. He’s always been with me. I think we can work something out. I look forward to speaking with him,” Biden said.  

Progressives who have expressed disappointment at what they’ve described as Biden’s insufficient engagement in the fight over voting rights legislation also expect to see the president spend more capital on muscling through a final package that doesn’t fall short on Democratic priorities.  

Mary Small, the national advocacy director for progressive group Indivisible, said the expectation is that Biden is going to “go all in” to get the package across the finish line. That means he’ll be at least as dedicated to getting the reconciliation bill passed as he was to getting a bipartisan infrastructure deal, Small said.  

During the infrastructure negotiations, Biden on multiple occasions hosted bipartisan lawmakers at the White House to discuss the potential deal. He visited Capitol Hill in July to meet with senators for lunch after Senate Democrats agreed to a top-line $3.5 trillion figure for the budget package.  

But some argue that Biden’s ability to sell the project to the public is even more important. 

“I think the president has to take a sales pitch to the American people,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive group Our Revolution. “I think there’s definitely space for back room negotiation and arm-twisting. The administration should do that, but I think even more importantly the president has to hit the road and say, ‘This is what this bill means for you as a voter, this is what it means for you as a worker.’ ”

Geevarghese said the administration is doing the right thing but needs to increase the intensity of its sales pitch.

“They’ve got to ramp it up,” he said. 

This story was updated at 10:13 a.m.

Tags Biden agenda budget reconciliation Harry Reid human infrastructure bill Joe Biden Joe Manchin Jon Tester Karine Jean-Pierre Kyrsten Sinema reconciliation bill

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