Biden seeks to save what he can from Build Back Better

President Biden this week offered a new path forward for his signature policy proposal based on a harsh truth: Not all of it will survive.

The president’s concession that some of the social spending and climate change package will need to be jettisoned marks a clear turning point for Democrats, some of whom have been insisting that something is better than nothing in a midterm year.

“It’s clear to me that we are going to have to probably break it up,” Biden said during a nearly two-hour Wednesday press conference.

Now, the clock is ticking for the White House to revive talks with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to see what a revamped and pared-down Build Back Better bill will look like.

“This is almost like an overtime period, because the hope really was that this would be done in December,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. 

Biden is planning to step away from the central role he has played thus far in the policy negotiations, a shift in strategy that will see him trading Oval Office phone calls for more engagements with the American public as Democrats look to boost their fortunes in the midterm elections. 

Up until this point, Biden has been directly involved in negotiating with Manchin by phone and in person, even hosting him and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) at his Wilmington, Del., home. 

Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said that Biden has been one of the most involved modern presidents in legislative negotiations. 

“No one is suggesting that he is not going to engage with members,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday. “What we’re conveying, and what you heard from him the other night, is that as you look at the time he is going to spend over the next couple of months, it’s not going to be hours and hours behind closed doors in the Oval Office.”

Biden on Wednesday conceded the public wants him to focus more on being president and less on being “President Senator.” 

“They want me to be the president and let senators be senators,” he said.

That means that the negotiations are largely going to fall to Biden’s legislative emissaries, Louisa Terrell, Brian Deese and Steve Ricchetti, a team that has already spent plenty of time on Capitol Hill hammering out details of Biden’s proposals. 

Officials are also moving to avoid some of the pitfalls that befell the initial round of negotiations on Build Back Better. The White House is likely to conduct its negotiations behind closed doors moving forward, after each previous Biden-Manchin received significant media attention. Democrats are conscious about not allowing internal policy battles to spill out into the press, and some partially blame Biden’s deflated poll numbers on last year’s disputes.  

And after multiple self-imposed deadlines for movement on the legislation came and went without action in the House last summer, Psaki said Friday that the administration just wants to get a scaled-down version passed as quickly as possible.

But the bill would likely need to be passed and signed into law during the first half of the year for Democrats to reap tangible benefits and be able to tout it when campaigning for November’s elections.

As such, some see Biden’s March 1 State of the Union address as a natural soft deadline. 

“It’s not hard and fast — you can go past it, but you can’t go past it by much,” Kessler said. 

“However they want to do it I don’t think is of much interest to most people,” said Eric Schultz, who worked as a deputy press secretary in the Obama White House. “But to the extent they can get these pieces done, I think there’s sort of zero interest in terms of how it’s done, but if they’re able to get it done, that’s going to be meaningful.”

Biden has already acknowledged an extension of the child tax credit and free community college — two of his priorities and popular programs among progressives — are unlikely to survive as officials and lawmakers seek out what is palatable for Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

Democrats are hopeful that the bill can include provisions on Affordable Care Act subsidies, lower prescription drug prices, funding for universal prekindergarten and fighting climate change. 

“[Biden] wants to get as much, as big of a chunk as we can get done, done and through Congress,” Psaki said in a Thursday briefing. “He also recognizes that nothing is going to get done without 50 votes. So, we’re not confronting a choice between what can happen and our ideal, it’s a choice between do we make critical progress for the economic well-being of middle-class families and in tackling the climate crisis, or not.”

The White House will largely be focused on determining what package Manchin can support after he torpedoed negotiations in December by saying on Fox News that he could not support the House-passed version of the bill amid ongoing concerns about inflation.  

But officials will also need to ensure that House progressives will remain on board with the revised package. 

Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, predicted that the contents of the new package would shift but that the overall price tag of the bill would stay at about $1.75 trillion — a size that Manchin had said previously that he could support. 

“It is very important that it stays around that ballpark,” Green said.

White House officials and Democrats are projecting cautious optimism that something can get done in the coming weeks, though Manchin remains a wild card. 

In an interview on MSNBC Thursday evening, White House chief of staff Ron Klain reiterated the administration’s position that the package was an answer to inflation because it would lower a variety of everyday costs for Americans. 

“This is just a commonsense approach to dealing with these problems,” Klain said. “I think we’ll find a solution to get some version of this bill through the Senate.” 

Tags Biden press conference Brian Deese Build Back Better Build Back Better Act Build Back Better agenda Charles Schumer Climate change Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Louisa Terrell Ron Klain social spending social spending and climate package Steve Ricchetti

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