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WASHINGTON — There are offers a president can make that others can’t. Among them is a trip on Air Force One.
So as President Biden heard out a group of progressive House members on their concerns with his $3.5 trillion Build Back Better domestic agenda, he suggested that Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., accompany him on the plane to Glasgow, Scotland, where a major climate conference known as COP26 begins on Oct. 31, according to one lawmaker present at the meeting.
It was a sign that the president is growing “a bit exasperated,” the member of Congress present at the meeting told Yahoo News, in this case with Huffman’s insistence that climate change remain a key feature of the president’s spending plan. Climate is just one priority, and Huffman is just one of the legislators making his priorities known. (The White House did not say whether Huffman had been invited to travel to Glasgow aboard Air Force One.)
Regardless of whether Huffman joins Biden when the president leaves for Scotland, the White House says it wants a deal by then that will ensure the passage of both Build Back Better and a related $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. Democratic leaders in Congress have also set Halloween as their own deadline for progress on the domestic bills.
“The president is a man on a mission,” Rep. Ritchie Torres, a first-term Democratic congressman from the Bronx, N.Y., told Yahoo News. Raised in a public-housing project, Torres had never been inside the Oval Office until being summoned there on Tuesday. He gushed afterward about the experience and praised Biden.
“He is one of us,” Torres said. At the same time, the programs Torres has championed — affordable housing and expanded child tax credits — may not survive as negotiations continue. If they do, it will be in truncated form.
“The concessions are painful,” Torres said, arguing that “racially concentrated poverty” is an even greater crisis than climate change, as far as the nation’s future is concerned.
Biden can invite many members of Congress to the Oval Office (and has done so). But he can hardly hear them all out, and he certainly doesn’t have space on Air Force One for every Democrat growing frustrated at beloved programs dropping out as negotiations grind on and on. If frustrations mount, legislators could start dropping out too, which would doom Biden’s chances of passing his domestic agenda on Capitol Hill, where his margins were almost impossibly narrow to begin with.
The most experienced Washington legislator to sit in the Oval Office in many decades, Biden has tried to be solicitous to the warring congressional factions that now have his entire presidency in their hands. But as he and his advisers have taken to pointing out in recent days, the luxury of infinite time is not exactly one they currently enjoy.
Reopening negotiations over the domestic spending bill may have saved its legislative prospects, but it has also led to predictable fighting about which programs will still fit into the slimmed-down package. Democratic lawmakers “bounce around like pinballs” on various imperatives, a frustrated Democratic staffer to a leading House member who was not directly in Tuesday’s talks told Yahoo News.
Meanwhile, the president is “getting anxious” about how long negotiations over his domestic agenda are taking, another senior congressional staffer debriefed by an attending lawmaker told Yahoo News.
Biden has warned that an inability to govern would doom not only his own presidency but also the notion of productive democracy itself, thus paving the way for autocratic rule that obviates any need for negotiation or consensus. Such rule is in effect in Hungary, a country with which the American right has become increasingly enamored, as well as in Brazil and Russia.
“The world is watching,” the president said earlier this month to a group of Democrats facing difficult electoral contests next year, according to one person who was subsequently briefed on the meeting.
Yet in a kind of political paradox, the rising sense of anxiety may actually reflect an attendant conviction that a deal is getting closer, that while the rivets are buckling and strong headwinds continue to blow, the plane that is the president’s domestic agenda is coming in for a landing — with Huffman and his colleagues on board, if not exactly enjoying the nerve-frazzling flight.
“President Biden was deeply engaged on the details, engaged personally with every member, and spoke about how these programs impacted ordinary Americans,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a progressive leader in the House who has sought a more conciliatory strategy than other left-leaning lawmakers.
Torres said he tried to persuade the president to stick with the expanded child tax credits and affordable housing programs by quoting onetime New York City mayoral candidate Jimmy McMillan of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party.
“We cannot Build Back Better if the rent is too damn high,” Torres says he told the president. More important, Torres cautioned proponents of climate-related funding not to be “dismissive” of the anti-poverty programs that would benefit his congressional district in the Bronx, which is the poorest in the entire nation.
Khanna described Biden as “trustworthy” after Tuesday’s meeting, which the president followed with another, this one with House moderates and three Democratic senators: Mark Warner of Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada.
Electoral considerations have haunted the negotiations at every step. The president’s approval ratings are dropping, and Democrats are becoming anxious about the 2022 midterms. With their $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package now more than six months in the past, they need another win to campaign on. “Once we can pass it, we can finally talk about what’s in it,” one of the congressional staffers told Yahoo News, an acknowledgment that a final agreement remains out of reach for now.
The president is becoming impatient, worried that the sausage-making was taking too long, without any sausage to show for the time spent. One of the staffers briefed on Tuesday’s meeting characterized Biden’s attitude as “Let’s finally get this thing done.” The staffer described the president as impatient to move on to other priorities, like shoring up voting rights — a key progressive priority that has been sidelined because of the energy the two domestic spending bills have usurped.
White House aides have described Biden as running a “full service” effort aimed at not alienating lawmakers, dispatching legislative staffers as often as needed to Capitol Hill. The limits of that approach, however, have become apparent in recent days, as legislators with competing imperatives have made their demands known to the White House.
On Wednesday, for example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed surprise that a proposal for free community college appeared to have been left out of the emerging budget proposal. Progressives on Tuesday, on the other hand, challenged Biden repeatedly to make sure climate provisions remain in the final bill, even though Sen. Joe Manchin — a centrist West Virginia Democrat who has been trying to whittle down the ultimate price tag of the budget proposal from $3.5 trillion to under $2 trillion — has thrown what has been described as a “hand grenade” at those intentions.
Manchin enjoys a great deal of leverage in the negotiations, as Democrats will need his vote to pass a budget. The same goes for Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, another Democrat unwilling to do the bidding of party leadership.
The White House is naturally impatient about this state of affairs. Earlier this week, press secretary Jen Psaki described the president as encouraged by the “accelerated pace of talks” between competing Democratic factions, which the administration hopes to conclude before the Glasgow summit begins.
“We have been at this for some time,” Psaki noted.
House members are getting impatient too. A senior staffer for one of the Democratic members of the House who was present at the Oval Office meeting on Tuesday described Democrats as stuck in a “holding pattern,” waiting to see who would concede what, and what Build Back Better would look like as a result.
“The president shares our desire to get these priorities across the finish line quickly and efficiently,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who was present at Tuesday’s meeting with House progressives, in a statement to Yahoo News. The widely shared feeling that the finish line may indeed be in sight only makes the coming days all the more fraught.
“This negotiation process will continue,” Lee said, expressing an unwelcome reality that is better than the alternative: a complete collapse of talks, which appears increasingly unlikely but is nevertheless still possible.
Months of legislative maneuvers have tied the infrastructure deal and Build Back Better together in complicated ways that even some expert Washington hands have struggled to understand. But if both pass, they could transform American society in ways that progressives assert are necessary and conservatives warn will be ruinous.
Child care and early childhood education would be subsidized, and hundreds of billions of dollars would be devoted to address climate change, including by moving to a greener economy and increasing resilience in communities vulnerable to extreme events like wildfires. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill — which won the support of 19 Republicans in the Senate this summer — would pay for repairs to physical infrastructure that have been needed for decades.
But before all that, there has to be a deal, which in the coming days has to see both House progressives and Senate centrists make some concessions. Manchin met with Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent and leader of the Senate’s Budget Committee. The two have been engaged in a public spat; whether they reach a resolution could dictate the fate of the president’s agenda. At the same time, Biden worked to keep progressives from sinking the bill as it looked increasingly likely that many of their priorities would be cut from the final draft.
When it came to Tuesday’s meeting with House progressives, the member who was present for the Oval Office talks but wanted to remain anonymous when speaking about his colleagues described Biden as struggling at times to convince Huffman and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who is leading the negotiations for the House Progressive Caucus, that he was serious about keeping climate change in his domestic Build Back Better plan.
“He was gracious,” the member of Congress told Yahoo News. Jayapal was not quite 8 years old when Biden was first sworn in as a congressman from Delaware in 1973; the two never worked together until this year. But she has emerged as the toughest negotiator for progressives who fear that programs they cherish, such as better pricing for prescription drugs, will be dropped in order to appease moderates like Sinema.
Despite having met with Biden on Monday, Jayapal pressed him again on Tuesday, insisting that House progressives have a binding agreement from him that their priorities will remain in the final bill and rejecting a mere promise from him to that effect. That rejection, coupled with the desire to have a more explicit agreement on progressive priorities — including climate — is what supposedly frustrated Biden during Tuesday’s negotiations.
Still, Jayapal greeted reporters outside the West Wing in a seemingly optimistic mood, praising the president’s dealmaking skills. “I think he is with us that we need to invest in as many of those transformational areas as possible,” Jayapal told reporters afterward. She said the final price tag for Build Back Better could be as low as $1.9 trillion, though perhaps as high as $2.2 trillion, depending on what Manchin and Sinema accede to.
Cuts may come not to entire programs, but for how long the programs are funded. Critics of that approach, such as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, have said it would be better to fund fewer programs — like expanded child care and home health aide services — but to fund them completely.
“She wants all of it in,” the second senior staffer to one of the attendees told Yahoo News after the meeting with Jayapal.
Among the lawmakers present at the meeting with progressives was Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan, a close ally of Biden with whom he has a good rapport. She holds the seat once occupied by her husband, John, who spent a record 59 years in the House. When John Dingell died in 2019, Biden eulogized him. If Jayapal represents a newly emboldened left, Dingell is emblematic of the party Biden has known for decades.
California's Khanna, who co-chaired the Sanders presidential campaign in 2020, urged the president to frame the multitrillion-dollar spending bill as a mere 2 percent of the nation’s annual gross domestic product. He also suggested that bullying the headstrong Manchin would backfire, and that it would be better to argue that the bill would create jobs in West Virginia.
“We’re feeling good,” Jayapal told reporters after emerging from the White House on Tuesday afternoon.
Voting rights activists gathered in front of the White House as Democrats prepared to meet with the president. “This is our Selma,” one of them told the enthusiastic, if not enormous, crowd. The actress and activist Alyssa Milano was arrested at the protest, providing the event with national attention, but it is African American activists and supporters of the president who have most forcefully pleaded with him to push back against Republican efforts to make voting more difficult, in preparation for what they and others fear is a more complete erosion of democratic norms.
“They clearly have other priorities right now, and you can't push everybody on everything at the same time," a senator told CNN. So while the White House negotiations on infrastructure and social programs continue, those other priorities will have to wait.
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