Democrats feel high anxiety in Biden spending conflict

Democrats are facing growing headaches over their sweeping social spending bill as they struggle to show momentum ahead of an end-of-the-month deadline.  

President Biden will meet with groups of moderates and progressives on Tuesday, and he’s facing pressure from some in his party to take a tighter rein on the talks.  

Instead of narrowing their differences, Democrats are dealing with a near constant whack-a-mole of new problems in recent days ranging from climate provisions and child care to increasingly intense infighting between moderates and progressives.  

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, characterized the mood within the Senate Democratic Caucus as “anxious, not frustrated,” as they struggled to figure out what could unite all 50 of their members, nearly every House Democrat and the White House.  

“Time is of the essence. The longer we wait the less likely that we’re going to produce a product that the American people are anxious to receive. … We’ve got to have some mutual trust to bring this to a close,” Durbin said.  

The lack of public movement in the months-long negotiations is sparking growing tensions as lawmakers see their long-sought priorities stuck in limbo.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are locked in a days-long battle, with Sanders targeting his conservative colleague in an op-ed that ran in a West Virginia newspaper. 

Manchin, who did not care for Sanders going into his backyard to criticize him to his constituents, released a fiery statement in response.

On Monday, he said he and fellow centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), whom liberals blame for holding up a deal, wanted to work out an agreement.  

“There’s 52 senators who don’t agree, OK, and there’s two that want to work something out if possible in the most rational, reasonable way,” Manchin told reporters. 

But echoing skepticism from some of his colleagues, Manchin indicated that Democrats weren’t likely to hit an end-of-month deadline to send both the spending bill and infrastructure legislation to Biden’s desk by Halloween.  

“There is an awful lot going on. I don’t know how that would happen,” Manchin told reporters, adding that there still needed to be a “meeting of the minds.”  

Manchin and Sinema have warned for weeks that they can’t support a $3.5 trillion top-line figure for the spending deal. The White House has floated a top-line figure of around $2 trillion, though progressives have warned that is too low and Manchin has put a top-line figure of around $1.5 trillion.  

The standstill in Washington could have broader repercussions. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) is sounding the alarm that Congress should quickly pass a Senate-passed infrastructure bill to give a boost to fellow Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who is running for governor in a close race in Virginia. A loss by McAuliffe would raise alarm bells within the party while emboldening the GOP. 

The infrastructure bill had been expected to get a vote in the House by Sept. 27, but it’s been held in limbo for weeks as congressional Democrats and the White House have struggled to work out a deal on the larger spending bill, which is expected to carry a long list of priorities including health care, child care and education benefits, efforts to combat climate change and an overhaul of the tax code.  

“The two move together or not at all,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told reporters in a recent conference call, calling the end-of-the-month timeline an “arbitrary deadline.”  

Durbin, noting that progressives have pledged that the Senate bill won’t move without a spending agreement, urged Manchin and Sinema to reach a deal that could break the stalemate.  

“We’ve seen this coming for weeks, but now I appeal to Joe and Sinema, Joe and Kyrsten, close the deal. Let’s get this done,” he said.  

The White House insisted on Monday that it was making progress with lawmakers. 

“The president is certainly feeling an urgency to move things forward, to get things done,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “I think you’ve seen that urgency echoed by members on the Hill that time is not unending here.”

In addition to the Tuesday meetings, Biden met with Jayapal at the White House on Monday and indicated that he would be speaking with Manchin.  

Schumer didn’t mention the end-of-the-month deadline as he opened the Senate for the week but noted that he had conversations throughout the weekend and urged his 50-member caucus to cut compromises.  

“It’s a difficult task, but we’re committed to getting it done. … We still have work to do. We all know in order to pass meaningful legislation, we put aside our differences and find common ground within our party,” he said.  

But even beyond the top-line figure, which hasn’t been agreed on, Democrats are struggling to close the door on key policy disagreements. Progressive and climate activists are fuming over Manchin’s opposition to a program meant to incentivize companies to move toward renewable energy.  

When a reporter asked about him “watering down” the bill’s climate provisions, Manchin fired back: “You’re talking about one thing. … I’m not watering down. You need to read the facts and see what’s happening in the world.”

Beyond climate, Democrats are facing internal fights over what limits to put on the child tax credit and new child care and education benefits, as well as tough decisions over what programs will get sacrificed, or shortened, as the bill’s overall size shrinks.

Durbin said decisions about going smaller but including more programs, as progressives are advocating, or putting more money into fewer programs, as some moderates are pushing for, were still in flux.  

“The caucus hasn’t taken a position on that. And I think we have to take care to get maximum flexibility to close this deal,” he said.

He added that it would be “logical” to get an agreement on the top-line figure before making decisions on the details. But some members of the caucus have argued for the opposite strategy: figure out what policies they want and then set the price tag.

“You can make it square or make it a circle,” Durbin replied, “but get it done. I don’t care.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Biden agenda Dick Durbin Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Mark Warner Pramila Jayapal Reconciliation Senate spending

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