The White House is firing back at House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who on Tuesday called for Democrats to halt work on their sweeping economic agenda to focus on Afghanistan evacuations.
McCarthy said his call highlighted frustration, voiced by a growing number of Republicans, over administration briefings they feel have been too short or inadequate. It also served as the latest escalation in a barrage of sharp criticism over Biden’s handling of Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban.
“We shouldn’t work on other items, especially the spending of trillions of dollars,” McCarthy said of the Democratic legislative efforts during a news conference. Afghanistan and the ongoing evacuations, the California Republican said, “should be our only focus.”
House Democrats ignored McCarthy’s call, but the White House, fresh off another win in the high-wire legislative pathway to enact President Joe Biden’s more than $4 trillion in infrastructure and economic proposals, was more willing to respond.
“We appreciate this expression of bipartisan support for our evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, which is now one of the most large-scale and effective airlift operations in history and has gotten over 75,000 people out of the country,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman. “The American people know well that the federal government is responsible for many priorities at once. And they never expect their leaders to ignore crucial issues like, in this case, creating jobs, rebuilding our infrastructure and bringing down prices — including the cost of prescription drugs.”
The comments underscored a view inside the White House of the importance — and resonance — of Biden’s domestic agenda, even as the President grapples with a foreign policy crisis that has gripped America’s closest allies and much of the world over the last 10 days.
Biden made a point to focus on the legislative victory at the top of remarks late Tuesday afternoon that had originally been slated to address only the latest efforts in Afghanistan and a closed-door virtual meeting with Group of Seven leaders on the issue hours prior.
“The bottom line is, in my view, we are truly a step closer to truly investing in the American people, positioning our economy for long-term growth and building an America that outcompetes the world,” Biden said as he took time to outline key elements of the $3.5 trillion proposal Democrats are working to draft.
The back-and-forth is a window into how the two sides view a moment that has thrown the administration on its heels at a critical point for Biden’s entire domestic agenda.
Republicans have been sharply critical of the President’s response to the collapse of the Afghan government and the sprint to evacuate tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans who aided US personnel over the course of two decades of war.
It’s a view not exclusive to Republicans, with close US allies raising concerns about Biden’s adherence to the withdrawal timeline and some congressional Democrats wary of the President’s stated view that that the US is “on pace” to finish its evacuation efforts by a deadline now only a week away.
McCarthy has led a steady drumbeat of criticism, highlighting the condemnation from military veterans inside the GOP conference, over Biden’s approach.
“There’s no possible way that we can get every American that’s still in Afghanistan out in the next seven days,” McCarthy said after a Tuesday briefing from administration officials.
The White House has moved sharply in recent days to demonstrate the scale of the effort, with everyone from Biden down through the ranks of his foreign policy and national security team addressing the fast-moving and potentially treacherous events in Kabul.
Biden’s schedule has included daily briefings on the issue. The State Department and the Pentagon have held regular public briefings, as has the White House, on the effort to dramatically scale up what has become a massive evacuation of thousands of Americans, Afghans and foreign nationals over the last several days.
Yet the White House has also quietly kept a sharp focus on its domestic agenda, which Biden’s top advisers view as critical on both the policy and political fronts. Delivering on economic spending proposals at a scale unseen in decades — in the wake of dual financial and public health crises — is viewed internally as a linchpin to his entire approach to his presidency.
The proposals themselves, White House officials say, are also generally popular, according to public and internal polling. It’s not an insignificant element of their focus, particularly as Biden’s steady approval ratings have shown some weakness in surveys released in recent days.
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan came just days after the Senate passed Biden’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and adopted his $3.5 trillion budget blueprint. Each bill is, from a vote count perspective, largely contingent on the success of the other.
But officials are keenly aware the path for both remains complex and filled with potential pitfalls — something that the last several days, punctuated by the split between a group of nine moderate House Democrats and the progressive elements of the caucus, laid bare.
Maintaining momentum, even in the face of the most significant foreign policy test of Biden’s administration, is viewed by Democrats as critical in the weeks ahead.
As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi navigated concerns raised by moderate Democrats about the fate of the Senate-passed infrastructure bill, Biden’s senior advisers and legislative affairs team were also engaged, officials said.
And the President, even as he was weighing calls to extend the Afghanistan withdrawal deadline, took to the phones on Monday night to call some of the moderate Democratic holdouts and urge them to get behind a path forward.
That Democratic leaders, who had announced before Kabul’s fall that the House would return early from the August recess to move their agenda forward, still stuck to that irked McCarthy.
“The Democrats bring us back to spend trillions of dollars,” McCarthy said. “They fight because they can’t bring a rule up. They spend their time on phones trying to twist arms to get people to vote, whereas they should drop that and our entire focus — Republican, Democrat, independent alike — should be nothing else than bringing our Americans home.”
Yet Democrats on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue made clear there was never any consideration given to postponing the legislative push.
“We must not squander our Congressional Democratic Majorities and jeopardize the once-in-a-generation opportunity to create historic change to meet the needs of working families,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to House Democrats on Monday as she and her leadership team worked to secure the votes to adopt the budget blueprint.
By Tuesday afternoon, all nine moderates were on board to move forward, with an agreement to take up the infrastructure measure in September. The House adopted Biden’s budget blueprint, setting off a critical few weeks ahead as Democrats in both chambers seek to hammer out the details of that proposal.
“There were differences, strong points of view. They’re always welcome. What is important is we came together to advance our agenda,” Biden after the vote.
He then moved on to detail his administration’s efforts in Afghanistan.
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