Biden heading to Hill, as Democrats scale back $3.5T plan
By Lisa Mascaro
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is heading to Capitol Hill as Democrats strain to rescue a scaled-back version of his $3.5 trillion government overhaul and salvage a related public works bill after days of frantic negotiations resulted in no deal.
The White House said Biden was to meet in private Friday afternoon with House Democrats.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi had earlier vowed there would be a “vote today” on the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that is popular but has become snared in the broader debate. But that appeared increasingly unlikely, with no votes scheduled and chances for a quick resolution dimming as negotiations continued.
Holdout Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia sank hopes for a swift compromise, despite hours of shuttle diplomacy late Thursday with White House aides on Capitol Hill, when he refused to budge on his demands for a smaller overall package, around $1.5 trillion. That’s too meager for progressive lawmakers who are refusing to vote on the public works measure without a commitment to Biden’s broader framework on the bigger bill.
Talks swirled over a compromise in the $2 trillion range. But with Manchin dug in, a quick deal seemed increasingly out of reach for now. Still, Biden’s visit would be a welcome assurance for Democrats who have complained about not hearing enough from the president about the path forward.
Because of the ongoing negotiations, Biden opted to remain in Washington on Friday instead of traveling to his Delaware home as he often does on weekends. His public approval rating has dropped, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center.
“We understand that we’re going to have to get everybody on board in order to be able to close this deal,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We’re waiting for that.”
The president and his party are facing a potentially embarrassing setback — and perhaps a politically devastating collapse of the whole enterprise — if they cannot resolve the standoff.
Biden’s bigger proposal is a years-in-the-making collection of Democratic priorities, a sweeping rewrite of the nation’s tax and spending policies that would essentially raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy and plow that money back into government health care, education and other programs, touching the lives of countless Americans.
Biden says the ultimate price tag is zero, because the tax revenue would cover the spending costs — higher rates on businesses earning more than $5 million a year, and individuals earning more than $400,000 a year, or $450,000 for couples.
At immediate risk was the promised vote on the first piece of Biden’s proposal, the slimmer $1 trillion public works bill, a roads-and-bridges package that centrists were rushing for a vote but now appears stalled.
During a private caucus meeting earlier Friday, Pelosi asked lawmakers to stand if they supported the infrastructure package, and most did, according to those in the room. It was a nod of support for the preferred package of the centrists, who are frustrated the vote may have to wait.
Instead, the House and Senate were poised Friday to swiftly approve a 30-day extension of surface transportation programs that are expiring with the fiscal yearend, halting furloughing of more than 3,500 federal transportation workers. That also creates a new deadline to act on the stalled $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
The White House and Democratic leaders are intently focused on Manchin and to some extent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, two centrist Democrats who helped steer the public works bill to Senate passage but have concerns that Biden’s overall bill is too big. The two senators have infuriated colleagues by not making specific counter-proposals public.
Manchin did call an impromptu press conference Thursday outside the Capitol, insisting he has been clear from the start.
“I’m willing to sit down and work on the $1.5,” Manchin told reporters, as protesters seeking a bigger package and Biden’s priorities chanted behind him.
After hours of negotiations that stretched near midnight Thursday, he said he could not yet compromise. “I don’t see a deal tonight. I really don’t,” Manchin told reporters as he left the Capitol.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki released a late-night statement saying: “A great deal of progress has been made this week, and we are closer to an agreement than ever. But we are not there yet, and so, we will need some additional time to finish the work.”
The political stakes could hardly be higher. Biden and his party are reaching for a giant legislative accomplishment — promising to deliver vision, dental and hearing care for seniors, free kindergarten for youngsters, strategies to tackle climate change and more — with a slim majority in Congress.
“We’ve been fighting for transformative legislation as all of you know; these discussions have gone on for month after month after month,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the chairman of the Budget Committee and a leading progressive lawmaker. “This is not a baseball game. This is the most significant piece of legislation in 70 years.”
With Republicans all opposed to the president’s big plan, deriding it as slide to socialist-style spending, Biden is reaching for a deal with members of his own party for a signature policy achievement.
It’s not just Manchin’s demands to reduce the overall size, but the conditions he wants placed on new spending that will rile his more liberal colleagues as he works to ensure the aid goes only to lower-income people, rather than broader swaths of Americans. Tensions spiked late Wednesday when Manchin sent out a fiery statement, decrying the broad spending as “fiscal insanity.”
Sinema was similarly working to stave off criticism and her office said claims that she has not been forthcoming are “false” — though she has not publicly disclosed her views over what size package she wants and has declined to answer questions about her position.
Democrats’ campaign promises on the line, progressive lawmakers were fuming, sparks flying at the holdout senators.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., another progressive leader, pointing her criticism clear at Manchin’s remarks.
“Trying to kill your party’s agenda is insanity,” she said.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Jonathan Lemire, Kevin Freking, Brian Slodysko and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.