The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden, predicting a deal on his agenda, gives inside details of talks

President Biden fielded questions at a televised town hall on Oct. 21, where he was asked about his domestic agenda, paid leave proposal, and vaccine mandates. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)
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BALTIMORE — President Biden on Thursday night sought to use a 90-minute nationally televised town hall to breathe life into his domestic agenda, making a final push for Democratic lawmakers to unite behind trillions of dollars in new spending.

He spoke in detail about various proposals and revealed with remarkable candor a number of specifics from the private negotiations, shedding new light on the status of his ambitious spending plans.

“I do think I’ll get a deal,” Biden said, adding later that doing so would be a bigger deal than passing the Affordable Care Act. “It’s all about compromise. Compromise has become a dirty word — but bipartisanship and compromise has to still be possible.”

He added, “We’re down to four or five issues. . . . I think we can get there.”

Biden explained several times at the CNN-sponsored event how and why he was trimming his proposals, confirming that a paid-leave proposal was down from 12 weeks to four weeks and that he had been forced to drop his plans for free community college.

In multiple instances, he cited the opposition of two moderate senators, Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), saying that after more than 100 hours of negotiation they had forced him to shift gears.

“Joe’s not a bad guy; he’s a friend,” Biden said, while explaining that Manchin’s opposition to the president’s climate proposals was complicating his effort.

“She’s smart as the devil,” he said of Sinema. But she is refusing to agree to increase taxes on corporations or the richest Americans, Biden said, adding, “That’s where it sort of breaks down.”

Given that, he acknowledged his proposal to raise the corporate income tax was all but dead, but said he was pushing instead for a 15 percent minimum corporate tax — so companies would have to pay at least that much no matter what deductions and loopholes they employ.

Biden joked that he had been a senator “for 370 years” before becoming president, and said that the current deal was not the toughest he has attempted to negotiate. That distinction, he said, went to the assault weapons ban that he helped pass in the 1990s.

With 50 Democrats in the 100-member Senate, “everyone is a president,” Biden said. “Every single one. So you gotta work something out.”

While Biden said he was reluctant to get into a debate over the filibuster — saying it was a distraction and that it wouldn’t have enough votes — he went further than he has previously to express support for changing the Senate rules.

“I also think we’re going to have to move to the point where we fundamentally alter the filibuster,” he said. It could be abolished “straight up,” he said, or he may be open to doing so temporarily to pass voting rights reform “and maybe more.”

The town hall session came at a critical moment for Biden’s agenda, about a week and a half before a foreign trip that includes a meeting of the Group of 20 industrialized countries in Rome and a climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, where Biden is hoping to demonstrate renewed U.S. commitments to fighting climate change.

Democrats in Congress are pushing to nail down an agreement within days, although Manchin on Thursday suggested they would not reach a framework consensus by Friday, saying it “is not going to happen anytime soon.”

“I believe that they’re making good progress,” Manchin told reporters. “There’s a lot of details. Until you see the text and the fine print, it makes it pretty hard to make final decisions.”

The Virginia gubernatorial election on Nov. 2 is another pressure point for Democrats, who are hoping to give former governor Terry McAuliffe a boost and avoid an embarrassing loss that would become a barometer for the 2022 midterm elections.

Biden has faced criticism within his party for not doing more to use the presidential bully pulpit to sell his agenda, and the town hall marked one of his highest-profile opportunities. He also traveled Wednesday to his native Scranton, Pa., and is scheduled to appear in Newark on Monday.

Thursday’s town hall was moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper in front of an invitation-only audience at Center Stage’s Pearlstone Theater in Baltimore, about 40 miles from the White House.

It was Biden’s third town hall as president, all of them with CNN. He previously appeared in Milwaukee in February for an event also moderated by Cooper, and he visited Cincinnati in July in a forum moderated by Don Lemon.

He has long favored the town hall format, and during the campaign his advisers often thought it was where he could best connect with voters. It also often brings out some unexpected answers that he doesn’t reveal during exchanges with reporters on an airport tarmac or during formal news conferences.

Biden several times halted his train of thought, saying that he was droning on too long or didn’t want to bore his audience.

While the bulk of the town hall was devoted to the ongoing legislative battle, Biden also addressed several other topics.

He defended his immigration policies, but had a meandering answer on why he hasn’t traveled to the Southern border.

“I’ve been there before, and I haven’t, I mean, I know it well. I guess I should go down,” he said. “But the whole point of it is I haven’t had a whole hell of a lot of time to get down.”

Biden said he did not see anything on the horizon that would reduce high gas prices. He said he would consider deploying the National Guard to help supply chain issues related to the pandemic.

“Yes, absolutely, positively, I would do that,” Biden said, adding that he would consider having National Guard members driving trucks to speed up deliveries.

As Biden was still onstage, a White House official said that requesting the use of the National Guard at the state level was under the purview of governors, and the White House was not actively pursuing the use of the National Guard on the federal level.

While the effects of the coronavirus on the economy dominated the town hall, the actual pandemic was mentioned only briefly as Biden talked about vaccines for children and his vaccine mandates.

He also mocked the arguments of those who refuse to get vaccinated, citing their liberty as Americans. “Freedom? I have the freedom to kill you with my covid?” Biden said. “No, I mean come on.”

For weeks, the White House has been reluctant to publicly get into the gritty details of the negotiations taking place behind closed doors on Biden’s agenda. But on Thursday night, Biden dropped that reluctance.

During the town hall, Biden confirmed that his proposal for 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave was down to four weeks. “The reason it’s down to four weeks is we can’t get 12 weeks,” he said with a shrug.

He also said that free community college had been taken out of the proposal, but stressed that he was working on increasing Pell grants to help make college more affordable.

“Mr. Manchin and one other person has indicated they will not support free community college,” he said.

He pledged to continue pressing for free community college, but acknowledged it might take several years.

“I’m gonna get it done,” he said, motioning to first lady Jill Biden, a community college professor. “And if I don’t, I’m going to be sleeping alone for a long time.”

Biden said that the plan to expand Medicare health coverage to include other benefits — dental, vision and hearing — was now a “reach.” Again, he said those plans met resistance from Manchin and Sinema, outlining ways in which he hoped to still expand coverage for those treatments.

“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “But here’s the thing . . . Mr. Manchin is opposed to that.”

Because Manchin has expressed concern about the long-term solvency of Medicare, Biden said he was instead hoping to provide vouchers to cover dental care instead of changing the program altogether.

Biden also touted his climate proposals, and said that Sinema was largely supportive of them. He also said that he had not dropped a key provision that Manchin has opposed.

The infrastructure package sets apart $150 billion for a Clean Electricity Performance Program, which would penalize companies if they don’t cut back on the amount of carbon they use. Biden said Manchin’s concern is that he doesn’t want Democrats to accelerate the elimination of coal in the country’s energy usage because of his state’s economy’s dependency on it.

“Manchin, his argument is, ‘Look, we still have coal in the state, you’re going to eliminate it eventually, we know it’s going away, we know it’s going to be gone. But don’t rush it so fast that my people don’t have anything to do,’ ” Biden said.

“I think that’s not what we should be doing,” the president said. “The fact of the matter is we can take that $150 billion, [and] add it to the $320 billion in the law, now that he’s prepared to support tax incentives.”

That money, he said, will be used to encourage Americans to slowly adopt more environmentally friendly sources of energy, such as electricity-saving windows for their homes or solar panels.

With more money for environmentally friendly energy, Biden said, he can invest in technologies that “save significant amounts of money, and as a consequence of that significant amount of energy.”

These technologies, he added, create “real good jobs, creates a hell of a lot more.” They would also “do a lot to keep things from happening that are dangerous,” such as massive fires.

In the final question of the town hall, Cooper reminded Biden of the expletive he whispered into Obama’s ear at the signing ceremony for the Affordable Care Act, calling the moment a “Big [expletive] deal.”

Is this a bigger deal?

“The answer is yes, this is bigger,” Biden said. “This is a bigger darn deal.”

Mariana Alfaro, John Wagner, Amy B Wang and Dan Diamond contributed to this report.