Democrats see light at end of tunnel on Biden agenda

Democrats see the light at the end of the tunnel after months of tension and gridlock over President Biden’s sweeping domestic policy agenda.

The long impasse has pit, at turns, the House against the Senate, Congress against the White House and liberals against centrists — all along threatening to foil an agreement on the mammoth social benefits package at the core of Biden’s ambitious economic plans.

Yet following a series of pivotal meetings Tuesday between the president and Democrats from all camps, even some of the most unflinching lawmakers are singing an optimistic new tune, praising Biden’s new assertiveness in the debate and vowing to scale back their own demands for the sake of notching a big legislative win.

“The president is being very clear about the direction we’re going in, where he wants to go, and it’s that kind of leadership that’s going to get us to the finish line,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), a liberal who met with Biden this week.

If the talks continue on pace, Dingell added, “we will have the outlines by the end of the week.”

Talk of such a quick timeline was virtually unheard of as recently as a few days ago, when party leaders faced stubborn divisions between liberals fighting for a massive expansion of federal benefits, moderates wary of government overreach and a pair of Senate centrists — Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — whose vague demands left many in the party scratching their heads.

Biden’s meetings Tuesday — when he huddled separately with Manchin and Sinema, then with larger groups of liberals and centrists — brought a strategic shift from the president, who pitched specific policy recommendations complete with a range of spending amounts for each bucket of reforms.

Those proposals included cuts to some of the more popular programs featured in the initial $3.5 trillion “family” benefits package — a figure championed by Biden and House Democrats — including a scaling back of the child tax credit, paid medical leave and a number of environmental programs.

Still, the effects were near immediate. Manchin, returning to the Capitol, announced that he would launch negotiations with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sinema and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to break the stalemate, predicting they could finalize a framework agreement by week’s end.

And a day later, Democrats from across the spectrum cheered Biden’s active involvement in the process, suggesting there’s a new appetite for compromise from members of all persuasions.

“He’s gotten to a place where [he’s saying], ‘Here’s the bill that you can get 50 votes in the Senate on, and 219 votes in the House,’” said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), a moderate who also met with Biden on Tuesday. “I’ve talked to some of my progressive colleagues who met with him earlier, and I think we’re in a place where we’re pretty close to agreement.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a close Sanders ally, is one of those progressives. He’s pressed for an enormous expansion of social benefit and climate programs but is also conceding the reality of what’s possible given the Democrats’ razor-thin margins in both chambers. With that in mind, he’s ready to accept a strategy of funding those programs over a shorter span to get the package to Biden’s desk.

“It’s not ideal, but politics is the art of compromise,” he said. “It’s not how I would fund things, but it’s better than having nothing.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is also voicing an optimistic note, saying the debate is “moving in the right direction.”

And Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, suggested that all sides are ready to give in on initial demands in order to achieve what could be a legacy-defining victory for Biden. 

“There are no red lines,” he said.

Indeed, the compromises are coming from all camps. Biden has shrunk the size of his spending request, from $3.5 trillion to something in the $2 trillion range. Manchin has said he’s open to hiking his initial demand of $1.5 trillion, as long as it’s fully offset. Liberals are ready to accept a much lower top-line figure if many of the programs remain largely intact. And moderates seem ready to accept whatever emerges from the Manchin-Sanders talks.

“I would like to see us try to get a little bit more on the climate front,” said Bera. “But if Sen. Manchin can’t be moved, let’s get what we can.”

To be sure, there are plenty of hurdles remaining before all sides agree to back the legislation, which features sweeping expansions of worker benefits and safety net programs, combined with new efforts to address climate change. 

Some Democrats on Wednesday pushed back against a proposal to cut costs by trimming the extension of the child tax credit from four years to one. Others, including Jayapal, have balked at a similar proposal to cut paid family leave from 12 weeks down to four. And a number of Democrats in high-income states are still pushing Biden to address the current cap on the federal deduction for state and local taxes, known as SALT.

“The strong consensus amongst the overwhelming majority of the members of the New York and New Jersey delegation is that some relief in terms of SALT should be part of this legislation,” said Jeffries.

Still, with Biden’s agenda on the line — and Democrats viewing the current legislative window as their last best chance to realize policy reforms they’ve sought, in some cases, for decades — the growing consensus within the party seems to be that they must compromise to achieve that goal.

Biden has added to the urgency, pushing lawmakers to get a deal before he leaves for Glasgow, Scotland, the site of an international climate conference that begins Oct. 31. 

“He was focused on delivering something before he goes to Glasgow … and he made a very compelling case,” Khanna told CNN. 

“He said … the esteem of the United States is on the line,” he added. “It appealed to me, that we need to compromise to give this president a win.”

Tags Ami Bera Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Debbie Dingell Hakeem Jeffries Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Pramila Jayapal Ro Khanna

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