Democrats did not appear to have an immediate way to advance either tranche of spending, stymied by internecine conflicts among their own divided liberal and centrist ranks. For the second time in as many days, party leaders also delayed a planned House vote on the measure to improve the nation’s infrastructure.
To try to break the logjam, Biden channeled his political roots as a seasoned legislator, huddling with Democrats in an attempt to coalesce them around a shared policy vision. But he also made clear that both of the party’s primary factions had no choice but to compromise equally, as they aim to deliver on the electoral promises that helped them secure Washington majorities in the first place.
In comments that appeared directed toward moderates, the president acknowledged the infrastructure package “ain’t going to happen” until Democrats reached agreement over their second tax-and-spending bill. That measure remains shrouded in uncertainty, as centrists including Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) labor to cut it back dramatically — prompting liberals to block the infrastructure bill as leverage in the ongoing talks.
“Let’s try to figure out what we are for in reconciliation … and then we can move ahead,” Biden told Democrats, referring to the process by which Democrats hope to adopt the new spending. His remarks were relayed by an attendee who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a gathering so private that Democrats had to check their phones to enter.
To liberals, meanwhile, Biden acknowledged the reality that they are likely going to need to whittle down some of their spending ambitions to win the fuller backing of Manchin, Sinema and other moderates in their party. The president told Democrats at one point during the discussion, in the recollection of a source in the room: “Even a smaller bill can make historic investments.”
One Democrat who attended the gathering, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, later said that Biden said they might have to accept a spending package much smaller than the $3.5 trillion they initially pursued — perhaps closer to $2 trillion. But a package at that size still could prove to be a tall ask, especially after Manchin said this week he is more comfortable with a $1.5 trillion price tag.
The president’s comments in the course of a roughly hour-long private meeting still offered a critical reboot to a debate that had become unproductive in recent days, illustrating the perils of Democrats’ powerful yet narrow House and Senate majorities. The infighting had proven so intense that Democrats even delayed a planned vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package repeatedly, an acknowledgment that it would likely fail at the hands of their own party given the differences that still plague them.
Biden, however, urged patience and restraint in the days ahead.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s in six minutes, six days or in six weeks,” he said.
The president’s visit to the Capitol came on a day when the two competing factions in the ever-fractious Democratic caucus continued to stand their ground, paralyzing party lawmakers from delivering both of Biden’s prized initiatives.
Centrist lawmakers began Friday by reiterating their belief that the House should vote immediately on the infrastructure package, which already passed the Senate on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis. And liberal-leaning Democrats signaled they did not plan to budge in their opposition, continuing to use the public-works spending proposal as leverage in a broader fight over the rest of Biden’s economic vision.
For these left-leaning lawmakers, their chief concern is the fate of their roughly $3.5 trillion package that includes a range of benefits for millions of Americans, including universal prekindergarten and new tax aid for low-income families. Manchin and Sinema have opposed the price tag and policy scope of the still-forming bill, troubling liberals, who feel that the duo would simply walk away from it as soon as they secure new infrastructure spending. To prevent that possibility, liberals have held up the public-works measure while Democrats and the White House pursue a deal.
Biden and his top aides had tried to step in as political peacemakers, holding meetings at the White House and on Capitol Hill with the two centrists. They discussed ways to slim down the $3.5 trillion package to an amount that the fuller Democratic Party can support in hours of meetings sometimes late into the night.
But a deal by midday Friday still eluded Democrats, while the White House offered little details about the current state of its talks. Press secretary Jen Psaki only acknowledged that “some have come down, some have come up, in the numbers that we’re looking at here.”
Hoping to fend off another day of delays, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) began by convening Democrats for an hours-long caucus meeting of her own. But even Democratic leaders including Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the majority whip, expressed great uncertainty as to whether party lawmakers could resolve their differences as quickly as some had hoped.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters she remained “confident of our numbers” — a signal that the frenzy of the last few days had not whittled down the liberals’ resolve to oppose infrastructure legislation if it is brought to the floor prematurely.
With no resolution in sight — and no vote on the immediate horizon — Biden made the short commute across Washington to deliver his message directly.
Inside the Capitol, Biden appeared at ease — playfully asking House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) for “permission to come aboard” as he entered the building. He bowed to Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) to acknowledge her long advocacy for the child tax credit he is hoping to make permanent.
He then spoke for roughly an hour to the tense Democratic caucus, at times making the case that the stakes in their shared quest to rethink broad swaths of the economy carry great political consequences — for the party’s future electoral prospects and the country writ large.
“We have to show the world that you can be a democracy and move as fast as a dictatorship can or autocrats, whether in Russia or China,” said Rep. J. Luis Correa (D-Calif.), paraphrasing Biden. “I mean, I think that’s a good framing. … To me, as a member, I think he came in at the right time as a leader of our country to, you know, jell this thing.”
Said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), “I don’t think there was anybody in there who wants to sack our own quarterback.”
But his message — that both the infrastructure and broader domestic policy bills need to pass in tandem, in due time — drew a mixed reception. Moderate Democrats who were counting on Biden to lay out a path for immediate passage of the public-works bill exited the session mostly peeved that he had not laid out a path to do so.
“It’s a disappointment to me,” said Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) “He negotiated the bipartisan infrastructure package, and I would have thought that he would have put that as high a priority as the reconciliation package. And he spent most of the time on the reconciliation package.”
Liberal lawmakers, meanwhile, emerged with a renewed sense of validation that their decision to hold their ground against the infrastructure proposal had been correct. Jayapal, whose caucus had pledged to deliver the death blow to the bill, later told reporters: “He was very clear the two are tied together.”
For the left-leaning bloc, however, the tough fight is still to come, as Democrats reckon with a need to scale back some of their grand ambitions to expand government to a level not seen in a generation.
“He said what we all know is true: The $3.5 [trillion top line] has to come down,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), adding that Biden expressed “his total commitment” to the elements of the broader bill: “He reiterated that he co-wrote the bill, that it’s in his bones. And then he was talking in a very matter-of-fact, practical way: It’s a 50-50 Senate, and we’ve got to continue talking with two senators, and he’s doing that.”