WASHINGTON — The time has come for President Joe Biden to close the deal — bring progressive and centrist Democratic coalitions together in Congress — if he has any hope of delivering on his domestic policy ambitions.
As the House and Senate chase endless deliberations over the president’s big $3.5 trillion vision for a rewrite of the nation’s tax and spending priorities, Biden is being called upon by fellow Democrats to do what he is known for doing best: stitch together the party’s diverse and often unwieldly factions into a working majority to pass what would be a landmark piece of legislation.
It just might be working.
“I think everybody in the room thought this was important to get done — I don’t think there was any debate on that,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., after meetings at the White House this week.
It’s a familiar role for Biden, who was not the most beloved or exciting candidate running for president in 2020, but the one whom Democrats from all wings of the party eventually rallied around. They saw in the seasoned leader their best option for achieving the common goal of defeating then-President Donald Trump.
Now Biden is gathering those same diverse voices that make up the party's oh-so-slim hold on Congress to do it again. This week, Biden hosted multiple constellations of lawmakers in the Oval Office, cajoling and wooing, handing out chocolate chip cookies wrapped in the presidential seal as he listened and made his case.
Biden was left to bridge the divide in his party, as he has often been before.
Unneeded to be said during the more than five hours of talks at the White House with three different groups of some 20-plus lawmakers is the political reality at stake. It’s not only Biden’s first-year presidential legacy but his party’s political future on the line — the midterm election little more than a year away. With Republicans in lockstep opposition to Biden's plan, it's up to Democrats alone to get it approved.
As difficult as it will be to pass the “Build Back Better” plan, the package also has become too big to fail.
“Failure,” as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has repeatedly warned, “is not an option.”
If ever there was a time for Biden to draw on his decades of experience, as a senator, vice president and now president to tap into the soft skills and hard-knuckled negotiation strategies he has honed during his long tenure, this would be it. And he is known to use both.
Congress faces a Monday deadline for a test vote on the first piece of his domestic plan, a $1 trillion public works measure that has become snared in the deliberations over the broader package.
Centrist Democrats want swift passage of the public works bill that's popular for its money for roads, broadband and public water projects. But progressives are withholding their votes for the $1 trillion measure, viewing it as inadequate unless it’s linked to the bigger, more expansive package.
Biden was in deal-making mode at the White House, telling progressives he would consider their appeal for a delay, while pressing centrists to wrap up their talks and settle on an overall price tag.
In his meeting with moderates, Biden went around the room to determine what they could live with as a top number, declaring, "Find it,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., recalled the president saying. ”Just work on it, give me a number.”
“Everybody’s just working in good faith right now — the president has everyone working in good faith,” Manchin said afterward.
Biden’s week has been outwardly dominated by foreign policy, including his speech at the U.N. General Assembly, his virtual international vaccine summit and his efforts to repair relations with France after a contentious submarine deal with Australia. But his lawmaker call sheet was never far from hand, as he worked down a list of Democrats to find out their sticking points.
As deadlines come into focus, so, too, has the White House’s bottom line: No Democrat should want to be the holdout whose “no” vote tanks a top priority of the president.
“We’re in agreement with 90% of the package,” said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., who joined the White House meeting of moderates. “This is about delivering on a once in a generation investment.”
It was never going to be easy.
The president had less trouble getting all the Democrats onboard with his first signature piece of legislation, a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, back in March, due to the urgency of the pandemic and the measure's centrality to his agenda for the first 100 days. But even then, the president had to step in to smooth over Manchin’s concerns at the 11th hour.
The White House approach this time had to be different.
Because this time, the benefits are less well-defined, in part because there are so many: dental care for older people, lower health insurance costs for Americans who purchase their own policies, tax breaks for child care, tuition-free community college, spending to fight climate change — the list goes on.
The total size of the package, at $3.5 trillion, covers spending over 10 years and is to be paid for largely by higher taxes on corporations and people earning above $400,000, pouring the money back into what Biden views as overdue investments in the nation’s infrastructure and its people.
The hefty price tag has scared some moderate Democrats. Aides concede the total will almost certainly shrink — perhaps considerably — but it’s not clear which elements will fall out.
"What’s important to understand about President Biden is that he is more inclined to have one-on-one, private conversations with people than to have a public debate because that’s how he’s always gotten things done and that’s how he’s going to get this done,” sad Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc.
“As much as I know that mudwrestling would be great for primetime news, that’s not how he operates. And I think that’s why he’s going to be effective and get this done."
On Thursday, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced they had reached a framework with the White House over how to pay for the package — essentially, a menu of options from the tax-writing committees that can be dialed up or down, depending on the size of the final package.
Lawmakers are planning to work nonstop in the days ahead, perhaps over the weekend, to meet Biden's request to have the framework wrapped up in time for Monday's test vote.
Biden has tasked them to prioritize and deliver the good over the perfect, reminiscent of the choice he gave voters in casting their ballots for him last fall.
Now, the Democrats are asked again to rally around what they may feel is imperfect, all because the alternatives are too bleak to face.