After a multi-day standoff filled with plenty of Democrat-on-Democrat combat, President Joe Biden came to Capitol Hill on Friday with his agenda in doubt and delivered a clear message to a fractious party: Come on, man.
A simple half-hour kumbaya session between Biden and House Democrats on Friday afternoon seemed to forestall an imminent collapse of the party’s marquee policy package: a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal, as well as a separate, still-undefined, multi-trillion dollar economic and social policy plan.
But it also meant that Democrats were set to leave Washington this week without any agreement on the bills and without any timeline on passage. “It doesn't matter if it's in six minutes, six days, or six weeks. We're gonna get it done,” Biden told reporters as he departed the Capitol.
Since Monday, House Democrats have grappled with an end-of-September deadline—forced by a band of moderates in early September—to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill that already passed the Senate. That bill, which funds roads, bridges, broadband, and the like, is supported by nearly every Democrat in Congress.
But progressives have insisted they would tank passage of that measure without meaningful progress on the other package, dubbed the Build Back Better Act, leading Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to delay a scheduled Thursday vote and to let lawmakers leave town on Friday without further action.
When Biden arrived at the Capitol on Friday, some Democratic lawmakers were still predicting a late-night vote to advance the bipartisan infrastructure plan. But those hopes were quickly scuttled when Biden made it clear that he, like progressives, wanted agreement on the second package before the House passed the bipartisan bill.
According to lawmakers exiting the Biden meeting and staffers briefed on it, the president clearly indicated he thought embracing that approach would ensure passage of his entire agenda.
Moderates, of course, stewed, as they’ve pushed for immediate passage of the bipartisan bill. Progressives took a victory lap, as they’ve maintained this strategy is the only way to ensure that the rest of Biden’s agenda is preserved. And Democratic leadership seemed happy just to avert a crisis in which progressives publicly sink the infrastructure bill and heighten tensions between them and the moderates.
All parties will now have more time to work on a compromise on the Build Back Better Act’s size, scope, and contents—time they will need, given the difficulty of uniting Democrats’ paper-thin and ideologically disparate majorities in Congress.
Biden’s message to all factions was clear, however: Everyone would have to sacrifice something in order for them to achieve both bills.
And those sacrifices could be significant. Lawmakers have already laid the groundwork for legislation as vast as $3.5 trillion, a historic price tag that could cover a laundry list of Democratic priorities, from combating climate change to expanding Medicaid and beyond.
During the meeting, Biden conceded that a final product might land somewhere between $1.9 trillion and $2.3 trillion. That’s far less than what progressives wanted, but more than the $1.5 trillion that key centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) supports—and perhaps trillions more than what some House centrists want.
Still, as Biden departed, most Democrats seemed positively effusive about the situation, even if some privately wondered why it took the president so long to come to the Capitol and merely echo what congressional leaders had been emphasizing repeatedly.
“It was a great reminder by the president of this historic opportunity,” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) told reporters afterward.
Multiple lawmakers said that Biden cast the effort to pass the agenda as nothing less than a test of democracy itself, arguing that extreme forces gain power when Congress is unable to deliver tangible results for the public. Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) said afterward that Biden told the caucus that when he speaks to leaders like China’s Xi Jinping, they argue that the American system cannot work in the 21st century. “We’re going to prove them wrong,” Auchincloss said.
Moderate Democrats and some Republicans, meanwhile, had been hopeful that Biden would be able to muscle through the bipartisan infrastructure bill with vague promises about the larger reconciliation bill.
For some of those lawmakers, the plan was just to pass the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure bill and let the other piece of the agenda languish, as progressives and moderate senators like Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) never come to an agreement on the top-line numbers for the larger social welfare bill.
But Biden seemed to see through that gambit. And his endorsement of Democrats leaving town without a vote, while everyone works out a broader deal, mostly appeased everyone. The moderates who had pushed hardest for a vote this week backed down, with Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) saying they would speak privately with Pelosi, while others expressed some frustration.
The Blue Dogs, one of the groups of moderate Democrats, released a statement Friday night saying it was a "sad day for our nation" when "a few Members of Congress" would block results for the American people. "Not because they oppose the bill before them," the statement said, "but because they don’t trust members of their own party."
Other moderates, however, seemed fully on Team Biden. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), who had been determined to pass the narrower infrastructure deal, tweeted afterward, “we’ll dust ourselves off, pave a path forward, and pass the infrastructure bill and a meaningful and transformational Build Back Better Act.”
And so, by late Friday, Democrats remained optimistic that both pieces of legislation could pass, preserving their chances to enact sweeping changes not just to America’s transit infrastructure but to health care, family, economic, and climate policy, too.
Cicilline, leaving the meeting, said the president ticked through all of those priorities as a way of reinforcing how critical he feels all components of the legislation are. He said Biden invoked two other Democratic presidents who achieved historic policy victories—Roosevelt and Johnson—as a way of underscoring the legacy-making stakes.
“It was a reminder of our shared values,” Cicilline said. “And just making sure we all understood the need to stay together as a caucus and get both things done.”
—Updated at 9:09 p.m. with comment from the Blue Dogs