Administration

Biden employs flurry of meetings to unite warring factions

President Biden on Wednesday launched a full-court press, hosting a series of White House meetings with lawmakers in a bid to unite warring factions of his own party behind his sweeping, multitrillion-dollar economic agenda.

Progressive and moderate Democrats have been feuding for weeks over the size, scope and timing of Biden's $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, designed to expand the social safety net and combat climate change. With a key deadline set for Monday, Biden is stepping up his involvement in the negotiations and trying to get his troops marching in the same direction.  

Biden first huddled in the Oval Office with the top two Democrats on Capitol Hill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.), for just over an hour. The president then hosted nearly a dozen top House and Senate moderates, including Problem Solvers Caucus Co-Chair Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) for over an hour and a half. 

Biden's final meeting, which stretched into the evening, featured 10 key progressives, including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).

"What the president is doing today ... is trying to reestablish that both sides - moderates and progressives - are dealing in good faith," said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), a progressive who will have a key role in shaping the final reconciliation package. "We're both doing our best to get this stuff done. If that's the case, then I think there's a way to negotiate [how] to handle next week."

Next week is critical for Biden and his party. Pelosi has promised moderates in writing that she'll hold a vote on the Senate-passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure package by Monday. 

But progressives, led by Jayapal, are vowing to defeat the measure unless it advances alongside the larger $3.5 trillion package, which calls for provisions like expanded child tax credits, universal prekindergarten and free community college. 

Key Democrats said there's virtually no chance the bigger package will be ready by Monday, setting up the possibility of an embarrassing, albeit temporary, defeat on the House floor. But as she returned to the Capitol from the White House, Pelosi told reporters this was no time for panicking.

"We are on schedule," Pelosi said before ducking into a strategy meeting between House Democrats and White House communications director Kate Bedingfield. "We're calm and everybody's good and the work's almost done." 

When asked if Wednesday's meetings mark a make-or-break moment, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she would never describe it as that but called it "an important moment."

"We're in a pivotal period of our negotiations and discussions," Psaki said. "We always knew and have always known that as we get close to points where there are votes called or where there are key moments that Congress has on the calendar that there needs to be deeper engagement by the president; that's what you're seeing happen today."

Gottheimer, after the meeting with moderates, said everyone in the room agreed on the need to pass the infrastructure package and the reconciliation package, and that "we can get there."

"It was the ultimate problem-solving session, but we still have work to do. We've got a hectic few days ahead," he said.

The White House has indicated Biden will have more meetings with members in the next few days.

It has also defended the decision to meet with Democratic moderates, progressives and leadership separately on Wednesday, a format Psaki said is the "most constructive" as opposed to bringing everyone to the same table.

"Now it's a point where we need to figure out what the path forward is. The president is going to play a role in hopefully uniting people around the next steps," she said.

Biden's stepped-up engagement with lawmakers can be portrayed as a last-ditch effort to avoid his legislative priorities being killed by his own party. Meanwhile, the White House has touted it as Biden getting his hands dirty in the negotiating process and flexing his muscles as a president who can bring people together.

Psaki said the president is "rolling up his sleeves, he's walking them to the Oval Office, he'll have some COVID safe snacks, whatever may happen."

Biden offered the lawmakers individually wrapped chocolate-chip cookies that featured the presidential seal, Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) said after the meeting with moderates. "My kids are a fan," she said.

Eleven progressive senators urged the House on Wednesday to pass both packages "along a dual track," noting that was the original agreement. The group, which included Sens. Sanders and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), said the House should wait to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the reconciliation bill is sent to Biden's desk.

When asked if the president wants to see a vote on both packages on Monday, Psaki punted and said he trusts Pelosi and Schumer's leadership.

The White House, in previewing Wednesday's meetings, played up the president's role as a uniter for his party, which is fractured over a path forward on his economic agenda.

"He's looking forward to hearing from people and looking forward to playing a role in bringing people together over achieving our shared goal of lowering costs for people and making the tax system more fair," Psaki said.

While Biden's approval numbers have fallen to a new low of 43 percent, his Democratic allies said his 50-year career in Washington has prepared him for this moment. The Delaware Democrat served for more than three decades in the Senate, rising to chairman of both the Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees. And as vice president, he struck a historic deal with his old Senate colleague, GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), to avoid a series of tax hikes and spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff." 

In 2020, Biden unified the progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic Party to win the White House and full control of Congress. 

This "is why the American people elected him: He sees them. He's put together an agenda that includes them in this economy. He's making it more fair. And he has that ability of knowing how to work with Congress," Assistant House Speaker Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), who joined the progressives' meeting with Biden, told The Hill on Wednesday.

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