With his entire domestic agenda hanging in the balance, President Joe Biden is finally doing what many Democrats have been begging him to do for weeks: convening members of his fractious party and forcing them to work out their differences over a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure package.
On Wednesday, according to a source familiar with the plans, Biden will host lawmakers at the White House, bringing in Democrats from various factions of the party for a series of meetings as the infrastructure and social welfare package enters its diciest stretch yet.
The stakes of the talks—intended to help craft a path forward for Biden’s enormous twin infrastructure plans—couldn’t be higher.
There are only five days until there’s a deadline, imposed by House moderates, to vote on a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate passed last month. But factions within the Democratic caucus are warring over that bill’s relationship to a broader, yet-unfinished $3.5 trillion bill chock-full of progressive priorities on health care, climate change, and the economy.
Liberals are already promising to block the former bill unless and until the latter is ready to pass, too. But moderates have their own gambit, threatening to blow up the entire arrangement in order to pass the narrower infrastructure bill as soon as possible.
This long-simmering game of intra-party chicken exploded as lawmakers returned to Washington this week, with members of each faction issuing their own ultimatums about what they could vote for and how—each one potentially significant given Democrats’ four-seat House majority and the tied Senate.
Now, many Democrats feel that the only person who can get their party’s agenda back on track is the leader of their party. And they are relieved that he is finally calling meetings at the White House in order to right the ship.
“I think that would help,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), asked about Biden getting everyone in a room together. “I think everyone wants the president’s agenda to succeed… no one wants to see this not work out.”
Before that news broke, Democrats were baffled as to why the president had, to that point, left Congress to descend into finger-pointing and threats.
“Without the White House’s involvement, it’s going to be super fucking complicated,” said a senior Democratic aide, speaking anonymously to candidly describe lawmakers’ thinking. “When you have a pissing match between progressives and moderates, you need an adult in the room, someone to come in and steer the ship—particularly because it’s their signature bill!”
Another Democratic aide said that Biden, as party leader, has a duty to set the agenda.
“He campaigned as ‘Union Joe’ who didn't care about Twitter. He's not governing that way,” the aide said. “There seems to be a desire to not take sides and not upset any outside group who wants their priorities included in these bills, but we're a party of factions right now and he needs to tell us what the lines in the sand are.”
While Biden’s increased involvement is a welcome sight to Democrats, there is still a sense that there are important lines in the sand—on the substance of the legislation—that he has yet to touch amid the legislative squabbles.
Some House moderates, for instance, have threatened to vote against the package if it allows Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, a broadly popular proposal that is fiercely opposed by the pharmaceutical industry. Some Democrats from the Northeast, meanwhile, have threatened to withhold their votes if the bill does not include a tax break for wealthy residents of states with high local taxes.
On the left, there have been fewer hard-and-fast red lines, and there is a general sense that the eagerness of progressives to pass something will make them easier negotiating partners. But lawmakers like Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) have embraced activists’ call to reject a bill without significant investments in fighting climate change, embodied by the “no climate, no deal” rallying cry.
A person with knowledge of the negotiations over allowing the government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies over prescription drug prices, responding to a flippant Norm Macdonald quote texted by a reporter, said, “I don’t disagree.”
“I say shut down DCA and don’t let members leave the complex until something is worked out,” they added.
Biden’s move to hold private meetings to work out differences—rather than issuing public admonishments—may reflect his White House’s general strategy toward Congress so far.
“I don't expect him to negotiate in public,” said Sen. Angus King (I-ME), who was part of the bipartisan group that successfully brokered an infrastructure deal.
The administration’s allies on Capitol Hill say Biden, who spent decades in the Senate, is striving to hit a Goldilocks balance when it comes to how he engages with Congress.
“The President knows better than anyone when the executive branch participating is constructive, and when it can backfire,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who said he is frequently in touch with the White House. “They’ve got that calibrated pretty finely.”
Sources familiar with the White House’s role in negotiations between different factions and individual senators noted to The Daily Beast that the president has already met personally with members along the Democratic Party’s ideological spectrum, from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)—although those meetings weren’t necessarily back-to-back sales pitches, as are expected Wednesday.
Speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One following the president’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said American can expect Biden to be “meeting with, engaging with, speaking with a range of members over the coming days in this pivotal period of time,” adding that he’ll be speaking with “a diversity of voices.”
But the Biden administration, which feels that its priorities were made clear when the president first unveiled his “human infrastructure” plan in April, has largely avoided issuing “red lines” about specific components of either proposal—sometimes taking pains to avoid even the implication that aspects of the plan are non-negotiable.
During a Tuesday call with key stakeholders organized by PL+US—Paid Leave for the United States, an outside group dedicated to getting paid family and medical leave signed into law by next year—Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo was asked what was the most important part of the paid leave proposal the White House wanted to see in the final version of the reconciliation bill.
In a dodge, Raimondo called the legislation “complex” and declined to name specifics. “I am certainly not going to negotiate any aspects of it on this Zoom—I would just say the president and this administration are deeply committed to having a robust paid-leave policy,” she said.
The closest Biden has come to drawing a firm line has been on ensuring that the plans conform to a key campaign promise not to raise taxes on Americans making more than $400,000 per year.
“We’re not going to raise taxes on anyone making under $400,000,” Biden said in remarks last week. “Some of my liberal friends are saying it should be lower than that, but only corporations and people making over $400,000 a year are going to pay any additional tax” under the plan.” (Well, except for smokers.)
The White House’s view, according to those familiar, is that declaring any area of the proposals “off limits” would largely serve as a distraction from the face-to-face—or Zoom-to-Zoom—negotiations taking place.
“Every hard-and-fast rule that you make about what’s required to be in a piece of legislation or required not to be in a piece of legislation risks undermining your credibility as a negotiator if you walk back from it,” a former legislative aide in Biden’s Senate office told The Daily Beast. “It’s better in the long run to give yourself room to maneuver.”
When asked about Biden’s feelings on the utility of ultimatums, deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates said the president, his cabinet, and White House senior staff were “continuously engaged in discussions with a wide spectrum of members about the Build Back Better agenda, highlighting the need to invest in families over big corporations at this crucial inflection point and ensure our economy delivers for the middle class.”
“We urgently need to cut taxes for working families and reduce the cost of prescription drugs, education, health care, child care, and care for older Americans; and pay for it by restoring fairness to our tax code and repeating the exorbitant tax giveaways to the wealthiest Americans that were passed during the prior administration,” Bates continued. “A large majority of Americans support this plan, and 17 Nobel prize winners in economics have affirmed it will grow our economy and guard against inflation for the long haul.”
Lawmakers and aides describe an active and well-staffed legislative affairs operation in the White House that frequently checks in and takes temperatures on the Hill. In other words: it does its best work in private. And because of that, some lawmakers say they understand where Biden is, despite his lack of public pronouncements.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), a senior progressive, said Biden “only takes it to the public level when he needs to” and has “his own diplomatic way of handling things.”
And Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said Biden was doing “the best he can with a very challenging bunch of Dems who have a lot of different ideas.”
But there are indications that those ideas may be so different that collective Democratic success is impossible.
For months, Democrats had expected that a shared commitment to a legislative victory for Biden and the party would keep everyone together and make some bitter pills easier to swallow.
It seemed implausible that any Democrat would accept nothing rather than something, even if they did not love or even much like the final legislative products. But some moderates are growing uneasy not only at the $3.5 trillion price tag but how it might be paid for—tax increases that vulnerable Democrats could be attacked over in the 2022 midterms.
The alarm over that prospect is so acute that some moderates say they’re prepared to leave the bipartisan infrastructure bill on the table if it means blocking a broader bill they believe is toxic, even if Biden had staked his presidency on it.
“We think that is more politically tenable than massive tax increases,” one Democratic aide said.
Other Democrats are incredulous that some lawmakers actually believe doing nothing would be a palatable outcome, given the enormous stakes. As one Senate Democratic aide put it, “no one would be happier if both of these bills failed than Donald Trump.”
“Did you like the last four years? Great, you’re going to love their political strategy of doing absolutely nothing,” the aide added.
Of course, Democratic freak-outs over the potential for rogue members of the caucus to cut off the party’s nose to spite its face have a long history, with a lot fewer examples of major legislation actually going down. In 2010, as the Affordable Care Act appeared almost certain to face such a face, President Barack Obama told Democrats in his State of the Union address that “people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills.”
The ACA ultimately did pass through both chambers, despite previous “red line” threats from Democrats of various stripes to kill the bill.
Khanna, speaking to The Daily Beast on Tuesday night, cast the current discord as a normal part of the legislative process—even if it leads to short-term legislative failure.
“I don't think we're going to fall apart because of an artificial date,” said Khanna. “I think the question is, how do we come to a consensus on the right number? And how do we come to a consensus on the priorities?”