Biden’s Claim of Dealmaking Skill Is Tested by Feuding Democrats
(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden, a 36-year veteran of the Senate, ran for president on the argument that he was uniquely capable of navigating both political parties to pass big pieces of legislation.
But with a default on U.S. debt only a few weeks off and his domestic spending agenda at risk of collapse, Biden’s claim of unrivaled congressional expertise is in question.
It’s the kind of knotty situation the president said he’d avoid or at least untangle. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans a vote Thursday on a $550 billion bipartisan public works bill the Senate’s already passed. Progressive Democrats say they’ll make sure that legislation fails unless the Senate first passes their top priority, a much larger tax and spending bill.
But centrist Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, whose votes are crucial in the 50-50 Senate, don’t yet support the measure.
Meanwhile Biden and his allies haven’t figured out what to do about the government’s borrowing authority, which will expire sometime next month. Republicans say they’ll oppose an increase, which could lead to a first-ever default.
The outcome of the congressional votes will shape the rest of Biden’s term, and help determine whether Democrats keep control of the House and Senate in next year’s midterm elections.
Biden cast himself as a dealmaker not only in his 2020 campaign but also during his eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president. In the current congressional negotiations, though, he hasn’t drawn much attention to his role. Most of his meetings with lawmakers have been private, and aides have declined to say much about who he’s calling or what he’s said.
The president has spent his time in “private conversations and discussions with a range of members about how to move things forward,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday, after Biden scrapped a trip to Chicago to focus on the talks.
On Wednesday night, after meeting with Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, he dropped by the annual Congressional Baseball Game and handed out Dove ice cream bars to members of both the Democratic and GOP squads.
Congress is famous for last-minute deals to resolve what can appear to be intractable impasses, and late Wednesday there was one such breakthrough. Congressional leaders announced they’d agreed on legislation to keep the federal government from shutting down, with little more than 24 hours to spare.
But in negotiations over the two bills that together comprise Biden’s economic agenda, the White House faces an especially complicated scenario at a moment when the first-year president desperately needs a win.
The difficulty of the legislative pile-up was “completely predictable,” said Phil Schiliro, the Obama White House’s director of legislative affairs from 2009 to 2011. “The challenge always is how to navigate it. It always looks terrible from the outside. And from the inside, speaking from when I was in the White House, sometimes the outcome isn’t so clear.”
The unexpectedly messy American withdrawal from Afghanistan last month consumed much of the White House’s bandwidth at a time when Biden’s team hoped to work on clearing conflicts among Democrats, especially on the larger social-spending measure, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Both the infrastructure and social-spending bills “are must-pass priorities and are strongly supported by large majorities of the American people, who know that for far too long the wealthiest taxpayers and large companies have been able to write one set of rules for themselves while everyone else is left more and more behind,” the White House said in a statement after Wednesday’s meeting with Pelosi and Schumer.
Biden finds himself jammed between the liberals and moderates in his own party in part because Republicans, whom he’s repeatedly said would experience an “epiphany” once Donald Trump left Washington, are largely unwilling to work with the new president -- even to prevent the U.S. government from defaulting on its debt.
“He has unified 99.9% of the Democratic caucus around the agenda and he’s offered an agenda that is extremely popular with Republican and Democratic voters,” said Danny Weiss, a former Pelosi chief of staff. “He has not solved the Mitch McConnell problem, nor has any president, frankly,” he added, referring to the Senate minority leader’s obstruction of Biden’s agenda.
Progressive lawmakers say Biden now has to solve a Manchin-Sinema problem. Liberals in the House have complained that the two senators refuse to publicly detail their demands for the social-spending legislation, blocking Biden’s economic agenda from moving forward.
Manchin said Thursday that he wants the bill’s spending limited to $1.5 trillion over 10 years -- less than half the size of the budget outline congressional Democrats have already passed.
Sinema -- who particularly outrages the left because she represents a state Biden won in 2020 -- has repeatedly visited the White House this week, and members of Biden’s team went to the Capitol on Wednesday to meet with her. Progressives in Arizona announced Thursday they had formed a political action committee to raise money for a primary challenge to the senator, who is up for re-election in 2024.
“If we can’t get our agenda passed, of course there will be significant impact on our ability to hold the majority in the House and in the Senate and obviously will impact future efforts of the president,” Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, said in an interview.
Sinema and Manchin, she said, “need to tell us what they can support. So that needs some attention.”
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