President Joe Biden and his senior Democratic allies in Congress are preparing to lower their ambitions for a signature legislative achievement on their top social priorities.
Faced with increasingly stiff odds of passing their $3.5 trillion social-spending proposal, Biden and his aides are trying to suss out what narrower proposal could unite an ideologically fractured Democratic caucus of lawmakers, according to people familiar with the matter.
Biden canceled a planned trip to Chicago on Wednesday to twist arms in the nation's capital, and he has used the powerful backdrop of the Oval Office to court reluctant legislators. What's more, he'll remain engaged in negotiations over his proposed $3.5 trillion spending bill over the weekend if necessary, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday, according to wire reports.
But these efforts have yet to produce any results for a White House that is running out of options to secure a central piece of his legislative agenda.
Now officials are shifting their messaging to reframe this week's legislative wrangling not as a final stand for Biden's centerpiece economic priorities but as a way station toward ultimate success, even if a vote this week on a smaller package focused on infrastructure does not happen.
"It's not some major cataclysm if there isn't a vote today," Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told CNN on Thursday. "Mark my words. The infrastructure bill will be passed, and a version of the reconciliation bill will be as well."
The careful language shifted the goal posts both in terms of how large such a bill would be and when it would pass.
Adding to the complexity, the Democrat-controlled Congress still needs to act by about Oct. 18 to allow the federal government to borrow more money or face a historic debt default. And Thursday's move to pass a bill to fund the government through Dec. 3 and avert a government shutdown creates a new critical deadline a little more than two months out.
But the stakes remained high for a president whose approval ratings have sagged after a difficult summer including a messy Afghanistan withdrawal, economic woes and ongoing COVID-19 fears. Biden regards his "Build Back Better" agenda, including expanding healthcare and education as well as tackling climate change, as key to his legacy and to securing victory for Democrats in the coming midterm elections and beyond.
NEGOTIATING WITH MODERATES
White House officials have engaged in an unsatisfying back-and-forth this week with Senator Kyrsten Sinema and others who have expressed concerns about the scope of Biden's bill, according to people familiar with the negotiations.
Those talks were aimed at identifying a precise amount of spending that would be amenable to more conservative Democrats.
Sinema, during a private meeting on Tuesday, told the president that she does not support the $3.5 trillion proposal and was reluctant to discuss specifics until the bipartisan infrastructure plan passes the house, the sources told Reuters.
The senator has problems with both the size of the bill and the tax increases used to pay for the package, adding to the frustration of the White House and officials struggling to shape a package that she would support.
White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said any characterization of the administration being frustrated with Sinema is "false." "Senator Sinema is negotiating with us in good faith and we are with her," he said. A spokesperson for Sinema declined to comment.
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, said on Thursday that his top line is $1.5 trillion, a much smaller number that would require steep cuts to the plan and could jeopardize the entire legislative effort.
Manchin agrees with many of the tax increases, including rolling back the Trump-era tax cuts, but would like to use the excess revenue to pay down deficit, not fund new programs.
'GET IT DONE'
Left-leaning and centrist-leaning Democrats have been at odds over the measures, with moderates wanting a vote on Thursday on the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that already has bipartisan backing. Progressives are withholding support for that measure until the larger bill is also ready.
"The core of his agenda is this; what he ran on is this," said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of progressive group Our Revolution, referring to spending on social programs and climate change. "We have leverage and the president needs to twist some arms here to get it done."
The White House has been pushing back on fears among members facing re-election in conservative-leaning areas that passing a mammoth bill financed by taxes on the rich and corporations would alienate voters.
Narrow Democratic House of Representatives and Senate majorities will be on the line in 2022.
Biden, described by White House spokesperson Jen Psaki as “working around the clock” to save his agenda, tried to create a positive atmosphere for bipartisan cooperation by attending the annual congressional baseball game on Wednesday night.
Biden got a mix of boos and cheers as he stepped onto the field. But he spent time glad-handing and sharing ice cream with his fellow Democrats as well as Republicans who have opposed the spending bill.
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