Democrats urge Biden to go all in with agenda in limbo

Democrats are urging President Biden to lean way in as the party faces big divides amid a rocky stretch, with his signature legislative item at stake. 

The calls for Biden to act as the party’s unifier-in-chief comes as the president acknowledged that his agenda is at a “stalemate,” amid high-profile fights between not only moderates and progressives but the House and Senate over the scope of the sweeping spending package. 

Democrats are looking for sustained hands-on engagement with the hope Biden could sway holdouts and resolve points of tension that have slowed down Democrats’ efforts to pass a $3.5 trillion spending package. 

“I think at the end of the day Joe Biden needs to step up and say, ‘this is what we need to do together, everybody needs to pitch in to reach these goals.’ And if he can convince a couple of folks in the Senate, I think it will happen,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). 

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), after a closed-door policy lunch, urged Biden to burrow further into trying to win over both House and Senate Democrats. 

“I think the main issue is that right now the president is going to have to get even more involved than he has been in bringing people together,” Van Hollen said.  

Democrats credited Biden for recent meetings at the White House, where he tried to push moderates to come up with a top-line price tag that they could support and pledged to bring up complaints progressives had with the Sept. 27 informal deadline for a bipartisan infrastructure deal with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).  

“I think it’s a serious negotiation when the president gets involved,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). 

Biden also met earlier this month one-on-one with Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), two senators viewed as the hardest of the 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus to win over. And top White House staffers have been meeting with groups of lawmakers to try to hash out agreements on pieces of the bill, with the White House pledging after last week’s sit downs that there would be more outreach “in the coming days.” 

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he was “impressed” by readouts from his Democratic colleagues who had met with Biden and top White House staff. 

“Too intrusive kind of makes people mad and they don’t like it … I think they have a sense of that and they also have a sense of when and how to lean in,” Kaine said. “I just think the level of engagement has really dramatically increased right at the right time.” 

But Democrats are signaling that with the clock ticking and big headaches unresolved, there’s a risk of Biden and his top lieutenants doing too little outreach to the warring factions on Capitol Hill instead of too much. 

“I think he is, but this is definitely the time where the White House and the president need to be engaged on a daily basis. The clock is ticking,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who hopped onto an elevator where Murphy was chatting with The Hill, chimed in: “An hourly basis.”

The push for more involvement comes as Democrats are eager to show momentum on passing their two-part spending package, which includes the roughly $1 trillion Senate-passed bill and the $3.5 trillion spending package. 

Democratic leadership announced a deal with the White House on a framework for how to pay for the agreement, though no deal on a top-line. The announcement, which aides characterized as coalescing behind a “menu of options” for how to pay for the bill, caught rank-and-file senators off guard. 

But some Democratic senators, while acknowledging that they hadn’t seen the framework, argued that a step forward, no matter how small, was better than nothing. 

“That’s progress, especially progress in light of the last 48 hours that’s transpired. We’re waiting for any progress,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). 

But Democrats are facing painful decisions about the path forward. The simmering tensions between House progressives and a band of moderates could boil over on the floor this week, with leadership plowing forward, for now, with a plan to vote on both the Senate bill and the House’s $3.5 trillion plan. 

Both moderates and progressives have tried to tap into Biden’s mantle to make their case for passing their favored piece of Democrats’ two-track strategy. 

Manchin, speaking to reporters after his White House visit, said Biden “would love to see that bill to move forward,” speaking about the bipartisan bill.  While Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told CNN that progressives were “ready to support and deliver to his desk the entirety of the agenda that he laid out to Congress.” 

Even as progressives, including Jayapal and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), are pledging to fight for the $3.5 trillion top-line figure, others are acknowledging that it’s likely to slip. Though both House and Senate Democrats passed a budget resolution earlier this year that allows for Democrats to bypass Republicans on a bill of up to $3.5 trillion that figure was a spending ceiling, not a floor. 

“I think the writing’s on the wall that we don’t have 50 for $3.5 [trillion]. It’s going to be a painful discussion but one I think we can have and bring to completion,” Murphy said. “We’ve become victims to some pretty high expectations.”  

But part of the headache for Democrats is that with total unity required in the Senate, they need to figure out what moderates — in particular Manchin — will settle for. Manchin is in charge of writing the Senate’s clean energy provisions, but Democrats also acknowledge they are still trying to figure out where he’ll come down on the top-line and individual provisions. 

“Well he’s the president I think he probably could think of a few more things, but also on the other hand I think it’s really incumbent on Joe and Kyrsten at this point to tell us what they support or don’t support so that we can get on this,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), asked about Biden’s engagement.

“I think this is a situation where maybe somebody extremely close to him … clearly leadership, that would be the president and the leadership, they’re going to have to do whatever they can to really identify what it is that particularly I suppose Joe finds objectionable,” Hirono said. 

Tags Bernie Sanders Bob Casey Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Chris Van Hollen Chuck Schumer Dick Durbin Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Mazie Hirono Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal Tim Kaine
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