Panic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda
Democrats aren’t panicking yet but there’s a growing sense of urgency and frustration among lawmakers as a potential deal on a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package remains nowhere in sight.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is sticking with her pledge to hold a vote Monday on the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package passed by the Senate last month, even though progressives are demanding it be held in the House until there’s a rock-solid deal on a yet-to-be-drafted $3.5 trillion human infrastructure package.
Tensions are rising as it looks likely that people are going to end up with egg on their faces next week.
If the $1 trillion bipartisan bill passes, progressives who bought into the two-track strategy of moving it alongside a larger partisan reconciliation package will look like they’ve been ignored.
“We do need more time,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a leading member of the Progressive Caucus. “We want to support the president’s agenda and the only way that we can do that is to do it based on the agreement that was made.”
If the bipartisan package fails, moderate Democrats will be furious that one of their biggest priorities got torpedoed by progressives.
“It will not be a positive reaction to help coalesce our caucus if the infrastructure bill goes down,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “I don't agree with the judgment of those who think that somehow it will compel the moderate wing of the caucus to be more supportive" of reconciliation.
Schumer and Pelosi on Thursday announced the White House and congressional leaders had reached “an agreement on a framework” to pay for whatever spending proposals wind up in the final reconciliation agreement.
The framework, however, doesn’t include agreement on a top-line revenue number, a key piece.
Instead, it is an agreement on the “menu of options” that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) will consider as potential revenue raisers.
A senior Democratic aide said the revenue framework will serve as a template for negotiations with moderate Democrats on the size and scope of the bill.
Pelosi called it “a giant step forward.” Yet a number of Democrats — even some in the leadership ranks — said they had no idea the framework was coming. And some rank-and-file lawmakers were left scratching their heads about what it means for the larger process.
Recognizing the mounting pressure to show movement, Biden stepped up his personal involvement by holding separate meetings Wednesday with a group of Senate and House Democratic moderates and a group of progressives from both chambers.
Even moderate Democrats who are putting the brakes on passing the expansive “human infrastructure” element of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan acknowledge that negotiators need to pick up the pace.
“We’ve got to show more progress,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) after meeting with Biden.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who also met with Biden, said the president’s intervention eased some of his worry.
“Since yesterday I think we've made real progress,” he said.
“Before yesterday, no,” he added.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said “there’s a sense of urgency but there’s also a sense of ‘OK, we’re ready to make a deal.’”
“I’ve always thought reconciliation was an October thing. Earlier in October would be better,” he added.
Democratic senators say the biggest obstacle to reaching a deal on a top-line spending number has been the lack of success in getting Manchin to lay out precisely how large he thinks the reconciliation package should be and what key provisions he could or couldn’t support.
“My concern is that it is unclear to me whether or not Joe Manchin will actually come to yes on any of this,” said one Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to voice concerns about how the West Virginia senator will vote.
The lawmaker said Manchin has been “evasive” about what he is willing to support while Sinema has been more willing to discuss the specifics of what she could or couldn’t accept.
A second Democratic senator said while a few Senate moderates still haven’t agreed on the final details of the reconciliation package and how much it will cost, there’s broad agreement on an outline, with the glaring exception of Manchin and Sinema.
“The feeling is there are 48 people who are more or less on the same page,” the senator said.
“Joe may feel like he has all the cards, he could be a Republican,” the lawmaker added, pointing out that there’s always the threat that Manchin could swing control of the Senate — even though Manchin has repeatedly denied he’s considering a party switch.
But as much as Democratic senators want to be courteous to Manchin, they worry the longer the talks drag on, the more it hurts Biden’s political standing.
“Time is really short because every week this hangs out there is a bad week for us,” the senator said. “All we’re talking about is Manchin and Sinema instead of what we’re trying to do.”
Manchin skipped the part of the Tuesday caucus lunch when Democratic senators discussed the plan forward for the reconciliation package, the lawmaker noted.
He has refused to be pinned down on specific policy questions, which has had the effect of delaying progress on the overall bill.
Instead, he appears content to let the calendar days fall away and has publicly called for a “strategic pause” in the negotiations.
Asked about his colleagues’ frustration over the pace of negotiations, Manchin pointed to Wednesday’s meeting with Biden as a significant development.
“The only thing I can tell you is the president held a very good meeting, I’m very, very encouraged that something can be done,” he said.
Pressed on when he’ll be ready to agree to a top-line number, Manchin responded “I have no idea.”
“They’re not waiting on me, everybody’s got something,” he added.