Biden meets with vulnerable House Democrats with agenda in limbo 

President Biden met Tuesday with nearly a dozen vulnerable House Democrats as he and party leaders race to adopt his massive economic agenda before month’s end. 

Democrats consider enactment of Biden’s two-piece domestic plan crucial to the party’s chances of keeping control of the lower chamber in next year’s midterm elections — a cycle that’s historically difficult for the party of the incumbent president. And leaders in both chambers are scrambling to unite their clashing factions behind both the bipartisan infrastructure component and a larger, more controversial package of climate and social safety net programs. 

Biden, increasingly, is taking the lead in that unification effort. And Tuesday’s virtual meeting with House front-liners — a group deemed most vulnerable — was the second in as many days. 

Biden on Monday had convened a group of liberal lawmakers, who have been buoyed by the president’s decision to link the two proposals — a strategy that simultaneously drew howls from moderates who’ve been fighting for weeks to divorce the bills and vote immediately on the Senate-passed infrastructure piece. 

“I’m deeply disappointed in my president, in my leadership. I am deeply disappointed that we didn’t deliver on a major bill widely supported in the country,” Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii), a co-chair of the moderate Blue Dogs, told The Hill this week. 

But in that earlier meeting, Biden also urged liberals to compromise, cracking the door open to an idea pushed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and other centrists to use means testing, or income limits, to lower the price tag of some of the social programs backed by liberals, sources said. The White House is also looking at including more programs but trimming the duration as a way to cut costs.

“The negotiations are going to get us to that right combination to see what 50 Senate Democrats can support and where we don’t lose more than three House Democrats,” said one Democrat briefed on the talks. “It’s figuring out what we can do.”

The warring progressive and centrist factions appear to be slowly moving toward agreement on an overall top-line spending figure for the social spending package that’s expected to expand paid family leave, child care programs, and measures to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.

Manchin on Tuesday signaled that he’s open to a bill ranging from $1.9 trillion to $2.2 trillion, above the $1.5 trillion limit he publicly established last week.

Biden, meanwhile, is trying to set expectations for progressives — many of whom already believe the current $3.5 trillion is a compromise from their originally preferred $6 trillion —  to accept a package around $2 trillion.

On Tuesday, the president once again told Democrats that the overall top-line number would need to come down from $3.5 trillion, saying he had delivered that same message to the progressives a day earlier. But Biden did not present lawmakers with the exact number he had in mind, sources said.

Biden “emphasized that Democrats are more on the same page than people think and his commitment to seeing both bills get done,” said a Democratic aide familiar with Tuesday’s meeting. 

“The messaging advice he gave to members was to stop focusing on the price tag — and the fight over what it would end up at — and instead focus on what they want to see in it.”

Tuesday’s meeting with front-liners featured lawmakers of all stripes, including progressives like Reps. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), and moderates like Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.) and Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.).

Other front-line Democrats who joined the meeting included Reps. Colin Allred (Texas), Cindy Axne (Iowa), Sharice Davids (Kan.), Lizzie Fletcher (Texas), Vicente Gonzalez (Texas), Lucy McBath (Ga.), Susan Wild (Pa.) and Lauren Underwood (Ill.). 

Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) was invited but had a scheduling conflict, a spokesman said.

Another vulnerable Democrat, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, was scheduled to join Biden when he arrives in her Michigan district later Tuesday to sell his infrastructure package and “Build Back Better” agenda.

It’s all part of an effort by Biden and the White House to keep Democrats in both wings of the party close as they all enter a critical four-week stretch that could make or break key pegs of Biden’s domestic agenda. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has set a new deadline for House Democrats to vote on the Senate-passed $1.2 trillion package funding roads, bridges, waterways and broadband: Halloween.

That target is practical, since authorization for the nation’s highway funding expires at the end of October. But there’s also a political component at play: The election to pick Virginia’s next governor is scheduled for Nov. 2, and Democrats want to notch a big legislative victory to lend a boost to their candidate in that neck-and-neck contest. 

“If we don’t hang together, we will most assuredly hang separately,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “We have to get this done.”

In Tuesday’s huddle, Biden gave each front-liner a few minutes to lay out his or her priorities, a source said. 

For example, Axne, the Iowa Democrat, underscored four elements she wanted to see in the Build Back Better package: More funding for child care; lowering prescription drug prices; expanding Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing; and biofuels, including investments in the House draft that she’s pushed for that would lower carbon emissions while supporting Iowa farmers and businesses. 

Despite the internal clashes over strategy, the sides appear to be closer to agreement when it comes to the various policy prescriptions. And even the aggrieved moderates are vowing to move beyond last week’s disappointments for the sake of getting both bills to Biden’s desk. 

“I’m deeply disappointed that we put the entirety of the president’s agenda at deep risk by doing this. But in all honesty, I can’t focus on that right now,” said Case. “That’s the past. I can’t do it. The president made choices. My Speaker made choices. Those choices have consequences. I think they’re negative, but our goal now is to constructively engage.”

Naomi Jagoda and Morgan Chalfant contributed.

Tags Abigail Spanberger Build Back Better Cindy Axne Colin Allred Ed Case Elissa Slotkin Gerry Connolly Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin Lauren Underwood Lucy McBath Nancy Pelosi Sharice Davids Susan Wild

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