In private meetings with members of Congress this week, Biden outlined particular trade-offs, explaining for example that he wants universal prekindergarten care rather than free community college tuition, citing research that shows money spent on younger children has more impact.
He has floated the idea of giving seniors a debit card loaded with $800 to spend on dental benefits as part of an expansion of Medicare. He has revealed that he’s feeling pressure from his wife, Jill, who teaches at a local community college, to push for higher-education spending, joking that otherwise he would have to find somewhere else to sleep.
And Biden has stressed — several times — that lawmakers must help him show that democracies can tackle major problems, imploring them not to send him empty-handed to a pair of upcoming summit meetings.
“He was laying out what he wants,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who met with Biden this week. “It was clear what he wanted — and it hasn’t been until now.”
Biden’s stepped-up involvement comes as a rapid succession of deadlines loom, including the expiration of federal highway funds Oct. 31, the president’s appearance at a climate summit in Scotland on Nov. 1, and a Virginia governor’s election that’s become a referendum on the Democratic agenda Nov. 2.
One White House official said that Biden has long been invested in the plan’s particulars but that different meetings with lawmakers have had different dynamics. The official, like several aides and lawmakers interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid.
However those working closely with Biden or familiar with his meetings say that the president is now more clearly setting guidelines for what should stay in his social-safety-net bill and what will have to go as it gets whittled down from $3.5 trillion to $1.9 trillion or less. These guidelines do not carry an ideological cast, the people said, but rather seem aimed at shaping a deal that can pass.
Biden, who often boasts of his knowledge of congressional workings from his 36 years in the Senate, appears to be gambling that his months of listening have given him the credibility to start imposing his will more.
In some recent meetings, Biden has acknowledged that the Clean Electricity Performance Plan, an ambitious but controversial part of his climate change agenda, probably will not be in the final bill. He noted that the child tax credit, which has nearly halved child poverty this year, will probably be extended only for one year.
During a meeting with lawmakers Tuesday, the president spoke at length, but he also went around the room to let lawmakers talk about the most important issues to them, two people with knowledge of the discussion said. “He knows the particulars inside and out, and he clearly is trying to be in closing mode for the deal,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who was at the meeting.
Pocan said that over the course of three meetings with Biden, including one via Zoom, he has seen what he termed a “progression.”
“It seems like a lot of this is starting to jell — like he’s got in his mind, at least, where this could be going,” Pocan said. “And very clearly yesterday, from all the conversations he had with all the different entities, he has a pretty good idea, I think, where he thinks it can go.”
After months when little progress was evident, top Democrats are now suggesting a breakthrough could be imminent. “I think we’ll get a deal,” Biden said as he prepared to board Air Force One for a trip to Scranton, Pa.
On Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are pushing to hammer out a framework this week.
Pelosi told her top lieutenants at a meeting Tuesday that she was aiming to finalize the outline of the package by Thursday night, people with knowledge of the conversation said. The speaker has also said she wants to hold House votes on the package by Oct. 31, or a week from Sunday.
Biden has been most vocal about the upcoming climate summit, where he will face more than 100 heads of state and wants to signal that the United States is leading the globe again on climate. He has frequently framed the international order as a competition between democracies and autocracies, and wants to show that a country such as the United States can tackle a complex problem like climate change.
“The president was very authentic and passionate in appealing to our patriotism,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who met with Biden this week. “He needs an agreement before going to Glasgow to lead on climate and to show that American democracy is capable of delivering.”
Khanna recounted a dramatic scene from the gathering. “He looked people in the eye and said the prestige of the United States is on the line,” Khanna told CNN.
The Glasgow summit represents a key moment in the world’s effort to combat climate change, a top Biden priority, as countries are expected to make ambitious commitments to reduce greenhouse gases.
Biden has committed to cutting U.S. emissions to 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The aim far surpasses goals set by previous presidents, and climate experts say it is achievable — if most of Biden’s climate agenda passes.
On the other hand, if Biden cannot persuade Congress to pass much of his program, his credibility on the world stage would suffer, they say. “The world has grown skeptical of U.S. climate commitments, given our rather schizophrenic history,” said Paul Bledsoe, who served on the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Bill Clinton. “Other governments and industries overseas are very sophisticated — they understand the U.S. system, and they understand that legislation is more lasting than regulation.”
Another source of pressure is the Virginia governor’s race, where many political operatives believe Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s chances hinge on the party’s accomplishments in Washington — and where a loss could spell trouble for Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections.
“I feel like Terry will win in the end. But with that said, if he doesn’t, not only is the canary dead in the coal mine, the canary is obliterated in the coal mine,” said John Morgan, a Florida trial lawyer and top donor to Biden and McAuliffe. “If he loses, it’s not about Terry. If he loses, it’s about the national Democratic Party and their dysfunction.”
More broadly, congressional leaders have been eager to finalize their negotiations as the year nears its end and lawmakers are expected to shift into campaign mode next year ahead of the midterm elections.
The president is also facing calls from other Democrats to sell his agenda more forcefully. “There’s no one in the country that has the bully pulpit the president has,” said Pocan. “He needs to get out there and talk about this as much as possible, because I do think a lot of people don’t know what’s all in here.”
Pocan said that he pressed Biden by using a Halloween analogy, telling the president that his agenda is popular. “I think the exact way I described it is, he’s the house on the block that gives away the full-size Hershey bars. He’s not the house with black licorice and circus peanuts, right?” Pocan said.
Pocan said his point registered with Biden, who responded, “That’s right — we always knew the house that had the full-size candy bar.”
Biden has ramped up his travel plans, holding a CNN town hall in Baltimore on Thursday and traveling to New Jersey next week to sell his plans.
On Wednesday, Biden was in Scranton, where he grew up.
“I ran for president saying it’s time to rebuild the backbone of the nation,” Biden said in a 50-minute speech at the Electric City Trolley Museum, with old trolley cars as his backdrop. “I couldn’t have been any clearer. That’s why I wrote both of these bills in the first place.”
Standing between aging trolleys festooned with bunting, Biden stressed that the legislation Congress is debating — a bipartisan infrastructure bill and the separate safety-net package the Democrats are negotiating among themselves — mirrors what he campaigned on last year.
“The American people spoke. They had no doubt about what I ran on,” Biden said, adding that he won 81 million votes. “Their voices deserve to be heard, not to be denied — or worse, be ignored.”
The road leading into Biden’s hometown is now named the President Biden Expressway, and the main thoroughfare is called Biden Street. Biden has long used Scranton as a metaphor for middle America.
Biden’s sales job on his agenda is tricky at this stage, since the details of the plan are unsettled and negotiations are still underway. Biden spent much of his speech not on the specifics of his proposal but on highlighting what he views as the cost of inaction and criticizing the Trump administration for letting the problem fester.
“We haven’t passed a major infrastructure bill for decades in this country,” Biden said. “Last four years, you’d hear every month is, you know, infrastructure month. Didn’t do a single damn thing — nothing, I mean nothing for four years. We can’t afford to sit while other countries pass us by.”