President Joe Biden traveled to Capitol Hill Friday to meet with lawmakers on their home ground as Democrats strained to rescue a scaled-back version of his $3.5 trillion government overhaul and salvage a related public works bill after days of frantic negotiations resulted in no deal.
Biden was greeted by party leaders and headed straight into a private meeting with House Democrats. The White House said he also would be visiting other cities next week to make his case that his historic measures would help the American people.
“We've made some progress,” said press secretary Jen Psaki. “Compromise requires everybody giving a little. That’s the stage we’re in.”
However, action had ground to a halt in Congress despite Speaker Nancy Pelosi's insistence there would be a “vote today” on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that is popular but has become snared in the debate over Biden's broader measure. Voting on Friday appeared increasingly unlikely, throwing the president's big domestic agenda into doubt as negotiations dragged.
Holdout Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia had sunk hopes for a swift compromise, despite hours of shuttle diplomacy late Thursday with White House aides on Capitol Hill, when he refused to budge on his demands for a smaller overall package, around $1.5 trillion. That's too meager for progressive lawmakers who are refusing to vote on the public works measure without a commitment to Biden's broader framework on the bigger bill.
Talks swirled over a compromise in the $2 trillion range. But with Manchin dug in, a quick deal seemed increasingly out of reach for the present. Still, Biden's visit was welcomed by Democrats who have complained about not hearing enough from the president about a path forward.
“It’s his time to stand up,” said Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota.
Because of the ongoing negotiations, Biden opted to remain in Washington on Friday instead of traveling to his Delaware home as he often does on weekends. His public approval rating has dropped, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center.
The president and his party are facing a potentially embarrassing setback — and perhaps a politically devastating collapse of the whole enterprise — if they cannot resolve the standoff.
Biden's bigger proposal is a years-in-the-making collection of Democratic priorities, a sweeping rewrite of the nation's tax and spending policies that would essentially raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy and plow that money back into government health care, education and other programs, touching the lives of countless Americans.
Biden says the ultimate price tag is zero, because the tax revenue would cover the spending costs — higher rates on businesses earning more than $5 million a year, and individuals earning more than $400,000 a year, or $450,000 for couples.
“We understand that we’re going to have to get everybody on board in order to be able to close this deal,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We’re waiting for that.”
Frustrated and with their trust frayed, centrist Democrats watched the promised vote slip on the first piece of Biden’s proposal, the slimmer $1 trillion public works bill, a roads-and-bridges package, as progressives flexed their leverage.
During a private caucus meeting earlier Friday, Pelosi asked lawmakers to stand if they supported the infrastructure package, and most did, according to those in the room. But Pelosi has few votes to spare and appeared inclined not to risk failure.
Instead, the House and Senate were poised to swiftly approve a 30-day extension of surface transportation programs that are expiring with the fiscal yearend, halting furloughing of more than 3,500 federal transportation workers. That also creates a new deadline to act on the stalled $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
The White House and Democratic leaders are intently focused on Manchin and to some extent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, two centrist Democrats who helped steer the public works bill to Senate passage but have concerns that Biden’s overall bill is too big. The two senators have infuriated colleagues with their close-to-the vest negotiations that could tank Biden's effort — and their own campaign promises.
"I’m willing to sit down and work on the $1.5,” Manchin told reporters Thursday, as protesters seeking a bigger package and Biden’s priorities chanted behind him outside the Capitol.
After hours of negotiations that stretched near midnight Thursday, Manchin said he could not yet compromise. “I don’t see a deal tonight. I really don’t,” Manchin told reporters as he left.
The political stakes could hardly be higher. Biden and his party are reaching for a giant legislative accomplishment — promising to deliver vision, dental and hearing care for seniors, free kindergarten for youngsters, strategies to tackle climate change and more — with a slim majority in Congress.
Pushing the package is testing not just Biden, but Pelosi and some of the leading figures in the Democratic Party whose legacies will be shaped by weather they succeed or fail.
“We’ve been fighting for transformative legislation as all of you know; these discussions have gone on for month after month after month,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the chairman of the Budget Committee and a leading progressive lawmaker. “This is not a baseball game. This is the most significant piece of legislation in 70 years."
With Republicans all opposed to the president’s big plan, deriding it as slide to socialist-style spending, Biden is reaching for a deal with members of his own party for a signature policy achievement.
It's not just Manchin's demands to reduce the overall size, but the conditions he is insisting on that are riling his more liberal colleagues. For example, he wants to ensure the aid goes only to lower-income people, rather than broader swaths of Americans. And he's resisting some of the bolder efforts to tackle climate change.
Tensions spiked late Wednesday when Manchin sent out a fiery statement, decrying the broad spending as “fiscal insanity.”
Democrats’ campaign promises on the line, progressive lawmakers were fuming, sparks flying at the holdout senators.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., another progressive leader, pointing her criticism clear at Manchin's remarks.
“Trying to kill your party’s agenda is insanity,” she said.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire, Kevin Freking, Brian Slodysko and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.
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