President Joe Biden faced a reckoning Thursday as his aides began to tamp down expectations for quick passage of his sweeping domestic agenda after efforts to broker compromise between warring factions of his party appeared to fall short.
A failed or delayed vote on a bipartisan infrastructure package in the House Thursday would not mean the end of Biden’s quest to fundamentally change the country’s social safety net and reorient its tax code. But it would prove a major political setback for a President who ran on his experience as a master dealmaker and convener of the disparate wings of the Democratic Party.
It was certain to cause more grumbling among Democrats, not only directed toward the two Senate moderates who appear to hold singular power over the entire legislative process, but also at Biden, who has been unwilling so far to wage a public pressure campaign on those senators to see his agenda passed.
Top administration officials were ratcheting down expectations for a Thursday vote on the public works package, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had scheduled as a pressure point for Senate moderates to strike a deal on a more expansive social and environmental spending bill.
“It is not some major cataclysm if there isn’t a vote today,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said on CNN. “This will get through. Mark my words. The infrastructure bill will be passed and a version of the reconciliation bill will be as well.”
Pelosi has made clear she will not bring a bill up for a vote if it is destined to fail, making a delay more likely should she and her team determine the bill lacks support. The Thursday deadline was engineered to pressure lawmakers into arriving at a deal, and it’s unclear whether the same impetus will apply should the vote slide. As lawmakers gear up for the 2022 midterm elections, officials acknowledge the odds become steeper to arrive at an agreement.
Biden had no public events on his schedule, and aides were still debating whether to arrange a visit to Capitol Hill. If he goes, it would likely be too late to secure any type of agreement to have both bills passed this week. Instead, Democrats will look to him to explain where things stand — and where they go now.
During an appearance at the annual Congressional Baseball Game on Wednesday evening, Biden spoke casually to both Democrats and Republicans, but his presence was more of a goodwill gesture than a hard-nosed attempt to strike a deal. At one point during the game, Pelosi was caught on camera holding an animated telephone conversation as she attempts to hold her caucus together behind Biden’s agenda.
For Biden, breaking the stalemate is a necessity if he hopes to achieve the litany of campaign pledges contained within the sweeping $3.5 trillion bill. Other legislative priorities — like reforms to immigration, policing and voting rights — have little current prospects of success, even though Democrats hold majorities in both the House and Senate.
Over the past week, Biden has engaged in intensive discussions with lawmakers from both wings of the party to try and find common ground on the historic spending measure, which includes an expansion of health care, education, child care, paid lead and a major new climate change initiative.
His primary focus over the past days has been Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who are key Democratic holdouts on the larger spending bill. They met separately with Biden in the Oval Office on Tuesday.
Biden spoke to Manchin again on Wednesday, a senior administration official told CNN. The key moderate has declined to say publicly what his bottom line is on the bill, but issued a late afternoon statement Wednesday night blasting the current $3.5 trillion price tag as the “definition of fiscal insanity.”
Less clear has been Sinema, who has arrived to meetings with White House officials armed with a stack of spreadsheets detailing individual programs and associated tax increases. Despite Biden asking lawmakers last week to provide him a dollar figure they could agree to on the spending package, none has been forthcoming, at least publicly.
Still, White House officials have said they are making progress in the negotiations. And Biden believes Manchin will come around to supporting something in the end, according to people familiar with the matter.
That hasn’t quieted growing frustration among Democrats over the impasse.
“I think we have shown a lot of respect toward our colleagues who obviously have a different point of view when it comes to reconciliation,” Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democratic, said Wednesday. “Now it’s time, I would say, for both senators, make your mark and close the deal. What is it that you want? What is your final goal? It’s time to stop talking around it and speak directly to it.”
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