Progressives cheer, moderates groan as Biden visit caps chaotic week
After a long, chaotic week of internal clashes, House Democrats on Friday summoned the help of their biggest gun, calling President Biden to the Capitol in a high-stakes effort to cool the boiling tensions that have threatened to sink his ambitious domestic policy agenda.
Yet if the goal was party unity, the president seemed to fall short. In the roughly 40-minute closed-door meeting in the Capitol’s cavernous basement, he broke the bad news to moderates that a vote on a bipartisan infrastructure bill would not happen on Friday, as scheduled, eliciting discernible sighs from the centrists in the room.
The development marked a clear victory for the party’s progressive wing, which has demanded that the infrastructure vote be linked directly to a commitment from a pair of Senate centrists — Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — to support a larger package of climate and safety net programs, which stands as the second piece of Biden’s two-part agenda.
“He was very clear the two are tied together,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Progressive Caucus, who has led the liberal charge against a stand-alone infrastructure vote.
And Biden’s message was met with exasperation from the party’s moderates, who had twice been promised an infrastructure vote this week, only to see Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) punt on both occasions. Leaving the meeting, they weren’t mincing words in expressing their disappointment.
“Manchin and Sinema — should we just call them co-president at this point,” said one frustrated Democrat. “Is that what it’s come down to?”
The day’s events left the timeline for House action on Biden’s agenda very much up in the air. While the Senate had passed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill in August — a comfortable vote of 69 to 30 — it’s idled in the House while party leaders have sought assurances that the larger social spending bill can win the support of all 50 Democratic senators. And in a message unpleasant to the moderates demanding an immediate infrastructure vote, Biden made clear that he’s willing to wait some time to ensure that both proposals reach his desk.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s in six minutes, six days or six weeks. We’re gonna get it done,” Biden said.
Yet Biden also called for some compromise from the liberals, urging progressives to abandon the idea of moving a massive, $3.5 trillion social benefits package and focus on a smaller number. Manchin this week had argued for a $1.5 trillion package, and negotiations between the House, Senate and White House seemed to advance this week toward some happy medium, though not quickly enough to win the liberals’ support for the infrastructure bill.
“I’m hoping there’s a middle ground between $1.5 [trillion] and $3.5 [trillion]. But we need some time to build a framework,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.). “The question is the scheduling and the timing, and having some assurances that the Senate will join hands with the House on an amount.”
Acknowledging the need to find that sweet spot, Biden on Friday twice threw out a range that congressional Democrats should be looking at: $1.9 trillion to $2.3 trillion, according to two lawmakers in the room.
“If you don’t compromise, you get zero,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), summarizing Biden’s message.
All told, the visit marked the emergence of Biden as a key force in the effort to break the House impasse, after weeks when he’d remained on the sidelines, talking to senators and Pelosi but declining to intervene further in the chamber’s factional clash. And there was some grumbling that he hadn’t acted sooner.
“It was a good meeting; I just wish it happened a month ago,” said a House Democrat, noting that Biden did not stay to field any questions. “The White House Legislative Affairs team leaves a lot to be desired.”
A moderate Democrat pushing for a quick infrastructure vote was less generous, suggesting the pep rally with Biden was pointless.
“Why are we having a conversation again if there’s not a change in status, right? Why would we sit, why would we have an hourlong meeting to talk about all the things we agree on and then not decide on doing anything new?” said vulnerable Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.).
Asked what the point of the meeting was, Spanberger replied: “I’m unsure.”
Still, the president’s broader request for concessions from both Democratic factions seemed to be a popular concept, even among some of the centrists who had argued most loudly for an immediate infrastructure vote.
“He was trying to tell progressives: lower your expectations. And he was telling the moderates: they’ve got to be put together,” said moderate Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), referring to the infrastructure package and massive social spending package moving together.
“He was trying to mediate.”
The stab at unification, even if not entirely successful, came at a crucial time in the debate over the fate of Biden’s legislative plans. The Democratic factions have been sniping for weeks, and the distrust between them has grown only more palpable just as the House is set to leave Washington for a long, two-week recess. Biden seemed to provide a boost in morale just by his appearance.
Cuellar, for one, said the president’s visit was important for bridging the “gap of mistrust” between those groups, so the animosity doesn’t carry into the long break. And other lawmakers also stressed the importance of having Biden step aggressively into the debate to “reassure the members that he’s fully engaged,” in the words of Butterfield.
“He has a vision, he has institutional knowledge, he’s been through fights like this before,” Butterfield said.
Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), former head of the moderate New Democrats, delivered a similar message, noting the simple power of having Biden address the caucus in person.
“When he says I’m going to commit the power of the presidency to getting an infrastructure bill passed and to helping middle-class families,” Kilmer said, “I believe him.”
Updated at 8:31 p.m.