With a personal push, President Joe Biden pressed fellow Democrats to hasten work on his big “build back better” agenda Wednesday, telling them to come up with a final framework and their best topline budget figure as the party labors to bridge its divisions in Congress ahead of crucial voting deadlines.
Biden and Democratic House and Senate lawmakers met for hours of back-to-back-to-back private White House sessions stretching into the evening, convened at a pivotal juncture for Biden’s $3.5 trillion package as lawmakers struggle to draft details of the ambitious effort. With Republicans solidly opposed, Democratic leaders are counting on the president to galvanize consensus between progressives and centrists in their party.
Biden first conferred with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, then held separate sessions with moderate and progressive senators and representatives. The president listened intently, lawmakers said, but also indicated strongly he wanted progress soon, by next week.
“We’re in good shape,” Pelosi told reporters back at the Capitol after returning.
The White House called the meetings “productive and candid” and said follow-up work would be immediately underway. Earlier in the day, press secretary Jen Psaki said the White House realized that with time growing short “there needs to be deeper engagement by the president.”
The intense focus on Biden’s big-money domestic proposal showcases how much is at stake politically for the president and his party in Congress. The administration has suffered setbacks elsewhere, notably with the Afghanistan withdrawal and prolonged COVID-19 crisis, and Democrats are running short of time, anxious to make good on campaign promises.
Congress is racing toward Monday’s deadline for a House vote on the first part of Biden’s plan—a $1 trillion public works measure—which now also serves as a deadline for producing a compromise framework for the broader package.
At one point, Biden told the lawmakers there were plenty of conference rooms at the White House they could use to hunker down this weekend as some suggested they roll up their sleeves and stay to get final details done.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a key centrist who has balked at the $3.5 trillion price tag, said the president told him to come up with a number he could live with.
“He just basically said, ‘Find it,’” Manchin said. “‘Just work on it, give me a number.'”
“The president is really fired up,” said Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, after the evening’s final session.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate remained at a standstill over a separate package to keep the government funded past the Sept. 30 fiscal yearend and to suspend the federal debt limit to avert a shutdown and a devastating U.S. default on payments. Senate Republicans are refusing the House-passed bill.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said at a press conference Tuesday that failing to extend the debt limit was “just not something we can contemplate or we should contemplate.”
As for Biden’s big plans, the president and the Democratic lawmakers appeared to have not fully resolved their differences ahead of Monday’s test vote on the smaller public works bill for roads, broadband and public water projects.
Centrist Democrats want swift passage of the slimmer public works bill and have raised concerns about the price tag of Biden’s broader vision, but progressive Democrats are withholding their votes for the $1 trillion measure they view as inadequate unless it’s linked to the bigger package.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, a leader of the centrist coalition who attended one of the White House meetings, said all agreed on doing both—passing the bill Monday and working on the bigger package.
But Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, issued a statement after another meeting with Biden reiterating that some 50 members plan to vote against the bipartisan measure unless it’s linked to the broader bill. She has said the two bills must move “in tandem” to win the progressive votes.
Beyond the public works measure, Biden’s “build back” agenda is a sweeping overhaul of federal taxes and spending to make what the president views as overdue investments in health care, family services and efforts to fight climate change.
The $3.5 trillion package would impose tax hikes on corporations and wealthy Americans earning beyond $400,000 a year and plow that money back into federal programs for young and old, along with investments to tackle climate change.
Tensions are high as the Biden agenda is a key campaign promise not only from the president but most of the the Democratic lawmakers, including those in the House who face re-election next year.
“It wasn’t a matter of when we get it done, it was how we get it done,” said Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada, who was with the moderate group meeting with Biden.
All told, more than 20 lawmakers were invited to confer with Biden, moderates and progressives in separate meetings stretching into the evening, making their best pitches, Manchin and another key centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, among them.
Despite disputes, many Democrats say they expect the final product to align with Biden’s broader vision and eventually have robust party support, even if that version is adjusted or scaled back.
But Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., a leader of the centrist Blue Dog caucus, said the big bill will take more time. “I’m not sure that we’re at a place of closing out just yet,” she said.
While all this is going on, the government faces a shutdown if funding stops on Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. Additionally, at some point in October the U.S. risks defaulting on its accumulated debt load if its borrowing limits are not waived or adjusted.
Rushing to prevent that dire outcome, the Democratic-led House passed the funding-and-debt measure Tuesday night, but Republicans are refusing to give their support in the Senate, despite the risk of triggering a fiscal crisis.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has said since Democrats control the White House and Congress, it’s their problem to find the votes — though he had relied on bipartisan cooperation to approve debt limit measures when Republicans were in charge.
But in the 50-50 Senate, Democrats will be hard-pressed to find 10 Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster. Other options to try to pass the debt ceiling package could be procedurally difficult.