House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden spoke by phone last Tuesday and zeroed in on a strategy for their party's sweeping economic package, deciding that the time has come to wrap up negotiations, several senior officials in both places tell CNN -- a sign of Democrats' growing restiveness at a critical moment for their domestic agenda.
And for many Democrats in Congress, finalizing a deal now rests mainly on the shoulders of one man: Biden, whom lawmakers want to take a forceful public role in outlining what he wants to see in the final package. The increased focus on the President comes as worries are growing in both the West Wing and on Capitol Hill that dragging talks out into November could end in a stalemate and ultimately doom their prospects going into next year's midterm elections.
Not only that, they say, but it could deepen the sense among voters that Biden can't deliver on the core promise of his presidency -- that he would be able to get government to actually work.
"You don't want to get to a point," said Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat running for his state's open Senate seat next year who's concerned about the political impact of an extended impasse, "where we look so indecisive that it can't be repaired with the package that's going to pass and start impacting people's lives."
Privately, Democrats are growing frustrated with Biden's approach.
"The reality right now is that a lot of people are saying, 'Where's Joe Biden? This is his agenda, why isn't he more involved in the negotiations?'" said one House Democrat, reflecting conversations going on among rank-and-file members.
Even as they lay most of the blame on moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona for holding up a deal in the 50-50 Senate, a number of Hill Democrats want Biden to say explicitly what a potential compromise should look like, and start doing more to explain to voters what's at stake. At the moment, the defining legislation of his presidency seems completely lost in Beltway blabber about reconciliation and filibuster reform and numbers so big no one can wrap their heads around them.
Among those growing increasingly frustrated is Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has told Biden directly that while he feels sympathy for all the pressure Biden is under, the long process has subsumed any efforts to tout the popular items that they're trying to get passed, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Confusion over Biden's latest offer
That view was apparent on a private conference call with a small group of Democratic lawmakers and Manchin and Sinema last week, during which the two senators were at a loss over Biden's decision to float a new price tag for the plan: $1.9 trillion to $2.2 trillion. The senators said they were not ready to support that dollar amount because they had not yet seen details from the White House over what such a package would encompass, sources familiar with the matter said.
"Let's see your proposal, and negotiate downward," Sinema recalled telling the President, according to one source familiar with the call.
Some Democrats are perplexed.
"Why would the President propose that number without having Manchin and Sinema on board?" one Democratic member said. "There seems to be a pretty big miscalculation by the White House."
Among the issues that need to be sorted out: Whether to drop some key programs proposed in the initial $3.5 trillion plan to cut back on its cost -- a position favored by Manchin and Sinema -- or offer the same number of programs and pare back on the number of years to provide Americans with the benefits, a position backed by progressives.
Biden and his top aides keep suggesting in private they feel déjà vu from the 2020 Democratic primary campaign, perceiving themselves as once again chugging toward a victory despite bad daily headlines and not satisfying the peanut galleries on Capitol Hill or Twitter.
Even as impatience and anxiety start to spread in the West Wing, Biden still isn't hitting the road more than a rate of about once per week to build support and pressure for the votes he wants. His most recent stop was on Friday in Connecticut for a short speech pitching the broad strokes of his "Build Back Better" agenda. While White House aides argue that national attention follows him wherever he goes, there aren't Democratic holdouts anywhere near Hartford who'd be swayed by the local attention he could generate in more competitive territory.
Though Covid-19 concerns have somewhat limited White House travel, a senior White House official argued that the main reason Biden hasn't been out more is caution about staking out a position too early that might box him into either overpromising or negotiating against himself.
White House aides stress that Biden has remained deeply engaged behind the scenes with congressional leaders and other key players, and, essentially, that those who are demanding he do more don't know the extent of what he is doing because they aren't as relevant and involved.
Though some of the conversations the President has been having with members have been announced by the White House or leaked, he's been having many more, either rolling through several phone calls in one sitting from a patio outside the Oval Office or on a series of Zoom meetings, like those he held in the past two weeks with about a dozen progressives on one day and about a dozen other frontline members the following day. Those calls were a chance for members to state their concerns about how the negotiations and aspects of the bill were playing in their districts, according to senior White House officials.
"This idea that something is holding the President back just isn't right," a senior administration official said.
There are other, more intimate, chances for the President to speak with lawmakers as well. After bill signings, Biden has repeatedly pulled in members for long listening sessions in the Oval Office. Aides have been engaging with members and other staff themselves and briefing the President, sometimes multiple times per day.
But Biden's decision to let the arguments play out in public without him has contributed to what one senior Democratic aide on the Hill called a "quagmire" without a clear ending. "Multiple constituencies within the caucus thought they were the ones standing up for the President and his agenda as it relates to the legislative process," the aide said. "There's someone who could have settled that spirited disagreement more explicitly."
Moving cautiously in a high-stakes moment
Biden and his aides fear, though, that taking a clearer position would only harden the opposition and slow down progress even further as he works not just to attract Manchin and Sinema, but also to keep other moderates and progressives from jumping ship.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the Washington state Democrat who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said that in her conversations with Biden and top aides, she's stressed that "we have to get 50 senators on board, not just two. We've got to get 218 votes in the House, not just nine or 10."
The compromises already have created intense discomfort, with some members looking at the bipartisan infrastructure deal component of the negotiations and fearing that -- far from being a measure to fight climate change -- it could end up carbon negative, given all the new roads that will be built. Still, Democrats are holding onto hope that if they can actually finish a bill, it will include popular items like paid leave and childcare, and voters will reward them at the polls.
But failing to pass a bill would also be a boost, Biden told House Democrats on a visit to the House Democratic Caucus at the beginning of the month, to the argument he's heard from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping that democracy can't work. That argument, said Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a freshman Democrat from Massachusetts, also resonated among some colleagues.
Many Democrats already see Biden's low-key approach as having cost them the political benefits from the child tax credit in the spring's American Rescue Plan, which has been sending hundreds of dollars every month directly to millions of families in America. Even if they get through the current drama and pass a bill, top Democrats say they're behind in championing what would likely be the single most transformative piece of domestic policy legislation in decades.
"It's such a lost opportunity for these candidates who are out there," Jayapal said. "That should be their message. It should be ours too. Instead, we're just getting hit by everyone focusing on what the top-line numbers are."
Ryan, as one of those candidates, said he's already feeling that.
"If people don't know what's in it, that's really our fault," the Ohio Democrat said. "Whatever comes out of it, whatever the items are that in the bill, they are so impactful to people's lives, that if you can't sell this thing to your constituents you need to go find another job -- and you probably will have to."
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