The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden sticks to his dealmaking strategy, as some Democrats want him to do more to bring holdouts on board

President Biden talks to reporters after receiving a coronavirus vaccine booster shot on Monday. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

President Biden is navigating the most perilous week for his legislative agenda yet with an approach he’s honed over his decades in Washington: Hear out the warring factions, determine the realm of the possible and find the point of compromise that satisfies all sides.

That strategy has been clear in meetings with pivotal Democrats in the past week, with Biden speaking and hosting a stream of lawmakers — in particular a pair of moderate Senate Democrats who have wielded outsize influence in shaping the president’s agenda.

But the lack of tangible progress evident from those talks, combined with growing concerns from congressional Democrats, are testing the legislative acumen of a president who prides himself as a consummate creature of Capitol Hill. Particularly in the House, there are growing calls from Democrats for Biden to be more forcefully and personally involved with the domestic policy plans, largely viewed as the party’s one and only shot to enact their top priorities ahead of the 2022 midterms.

“I do think it would be helpful for the president to be more engaged,” said Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.). “I think his voice matters a lot.”

Kildee added: “He’s been engaged, don’t get me wrong. But I think him becoming more personally engaged would be helpful.”

How Biden cajoles key moderate holdouts and assuages restive liberals will help determine the fate of his chief domestic priority in Congress — a sweeping package totaling trillions in new spending that aims to remake much of the nation’s social safety net and invest in health and climate priorities by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations. It will also test his ability to cut deals — a skill he’s proved over the years, from an agreement with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” in 2012 to persuading a handful Republican senators to support the economic stimulus in 2009 — but this time, with his own party and with Biden as the leader.

President Biden on Sept. 28, continued to meet with lawmakers to urge forward the $1 trillion infrastructure bill and $3.5 trillion spending plan. (Video: Reuters)

Biden is coping with House Democrats who are more eager for direction and personal buy-in from a president whose political fate is linked to theirs — as well as senators who prize their independence and may be impervious even to presidential pressure.

“It’s easy to declare what you want or pound your fist on the table, but when you’re dealing with legislators who are difficult to intimidate and whose reelections they are experts in, most of us don’t like to get shoved around,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said. “He understands that probably better than any president in recent memory.”

The administration has paid the closest personal attention to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), an enigmatic first-term moderate who has met with Biden himself or his top aides four times in the past two days, going to the White House three times on Tuesday alone.

People with knowledge of the meetings between Sinema and Biden have called them productive and rife with detailed discussions over policy, although there’s been little progress to show publicly. Still, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the administration does believe Sinema wants some part of Biden’s domestic agenda package to pass by the end of this year — an attempt to ease public accusations from liberals that the senator from Arizona is prepared to kill the bill.

Still, neither Sinema nor Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), the other pivotal centrist, has conveyed much urgency after meeting with Biden and other White House officials, signaling they are content to take their time.

“He’s very good at listening and what my concerns may be,” Manchin said after meeting with Biden on Tuesday — a sit-down during which the senator said “no commitments” were made. Manchin issued a lengthy statement Wednesday that reiterated his opposition to the $3.5 trillion top-line spending figure that has been sketched out for a vast array of priorities that include health care, climate, paid leave and education initiatives. Sinema has declined to comment on her meetings with the White House.

Both Manchin and Sinema have been unwilling to indicate how much spending they will support, even though the president personally implored them and other moderates to give him that number — without being specific on what it should be — in a White House meeting last week. In Biden’s conversations, the president has served primarily as a sounding board, one official familiar with the discussions said, rather than coming in with a concrete demand.

“It was more, ‘What are your concerns with spending? How much higher could we get you?’ ” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private talks.

Giving the moderates space, however, has meant the House has been unable to coalesce around a strategy that will ensure passage of a separate bipartisan infrastructure package negotiated by Biden and key senators. That legislation has been put in peril by threats from liberals to vote it down. They are doing so because the separate $3.5 trillion package — which will be passed using an arcane budget process known as reconciliation that allows budget-related bills to pass on a simple majority in the Senate — is nowhere close to passage.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), returning from the White House on Wednesday evening, confirmed that the plan was still for the House to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure plan Thursday, although it appeared likely that it would fail to get the votes. And this week, frustration from liberals boiled over, with lawmakers arguing that Manchin and Sinema have been unwilling to even start robust negotiations with others in the party.

“They won’t even say what they’re for,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), another leader among House liberals. “That’s the real problem.”

The push for Biden and his aides to become more personally forceful has been acute in the House, where Democrats have been increasingly vocal about their eagerness and, at times, frustration with the White House.

“I certainly think that if the White House, House leadership and our allies like labor, who have interest in this bill, engaged in whipping for the bill, there would be a greater chance of success,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who met with Biden last week, said of the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

“He needs to get more involved,” added Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.).

House Democrats “need to know exactly where the president stands and what the president wants them to do, and they’re getting mixed signals depending on who you talk to,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said on MSNBC on Wednesday. “What is it that the president wants? Nobody can even answer that question.”

White House officials, even as they emphasize Biden and the administration’s extensive engagement with Democrats in recent days, have stressed that Biden will engage in no arm-twisting when it comes to the moderate holdouts. The White House has also emphasized that top West Wing officials have held more than 260 discussions on Biden’s domestic agenda package this month alone with lawmakers or their top aides.

“The president, as you all know, was in the Senate for 36 years,” Psaki said this week. “He didn’t want any president to tell him what to do; he’s not going to tell anyone what to do. He is going to have a discussion, have an engagement.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) also underscored the strategic importance of giving senators room.

“I think the White House leadership is important,” Tester said. “But what I’m looking for is enough space to allow people in the Senate to figure out where we want to be, and then visit with the president about, you know, this is where we’re at, this is what we can get done, and this is what we’re going to move on.”

Indeed, in private meetings with lawmakers, Biden has shown that he has no specific red lines, whether on policy or procedure, according to participants.

With moderates, Biden has indicated he is willing to be flexible. With liberals, he has indicated that compromise will be necessary. And as the liberals argued to the president that his infrastructure package did not need to pass the House this week — as Pelosi pledged to moderates last month — Biden made no promises of his own, instead hearing out the lawmakers’ frustrations.

At points, Biden has even conveyed some frustration, as lawmakers try to coalesce around a broader agenda with virtually no room for error in either chamber at the Capitol.

“He wants X. If somebody says, ‘Well I can do Y,’ but if you don’t even say what your Y is, you know, it’s hard,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said, describing some of that irritation. “Because if you got X and Y, then you can go, ‘All right, well, I’ll come down 10. Can you go up 10?’ ”

Despite the urgency of the week, the entirety of Biden’s complex legislative agenda is almost certain to take weeks to flesh out. But for now, Biden’s approach looks unlikely to change.

“Although the public may be imagining some sort of “West Wing” episode in which the president gives a nine-paragraph speech and everybody just collapses their opposition,” Schatz said, “that’s not actually the way lawmaking works.”

Jacqueline Alemany and Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.