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In Hill talks, Biden takes down the temperature in push for commitments and an end game

<i>Andrew Harnik/AP</i><br/>Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
AP
Andrew Harnik/AP
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer

By Phil Mattingly and Lauren Fox, CNN

President Joe Biden didn’t enter the back-to-back-back meetings on Wednesday with nearly two dozen Democratic lawmakers demanding a deal — or even looking for one. Things are simply too far apart for that at the moment.

But he did demand action, according to lawmakers and officials involved in the meetings.

Through four hours and 21 minutes, Biden probed, cajoled, praised, told a few stories and made sure lawmakers had access to the individually-wrapped chocolate chip cookies with the gold embossed White House seal provided for snacks.

He urged lawmakers not just to find common ground, but also to explicitly lay out what they would accept in a deal, according to multiple participants.

Biden wasn’t just seeking to shake up a process that appeared to have run into a brick wall, they said. Fully aware of a compressed time window for action, he was actively searching out the end game.

The bottom line

Lawmakers and White House officials were universal in the view that progress was made. All said the temperature, which had reached an intraparty boiling point, had started to come down. Yet all also acknowledged the same thing: the real work comes in the next few days.

What to watch

Biden’s public schedule is quite open on Thursday. Expect it to fill up with more meetings with lawmakers, White House officials say — something that will likely be a regular occurrence in the days ahead.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will hold her weekly press conference at 10:45 a.m. ET.

Where the divides stand

The meetings were substantive. They were detailed, with multiple lawmakers laying out priorities and issues across the key planks of Biden’s proposal, from child care and paid leave, to concerns over the structure of specific tax proposals.

There are, in short, a lot of policy details still to be hammered out, even if the key elements of the plan are both widely agreed upon — and widely supported.

But the reality remains this: Moderate Democrats won’t accept a $3.5 trillion package. Progressives made clear they view $3.5 trillion as a compromise already.

White House officials have acknowledged for more than a week that the size of the package would have to be scaled back in order to secure the votes of moderate Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. To what degree, however, and through which programs or priorities, has remained an open question.

There was a discussion in the moderate meeting on Wednesday about whether $2 trillion, or around that level, would be acceptable. But no commitments were made, people involved said.

Biden had an explicit ask for moderates, who have frustrated all involved by not laying out what exactly they would accept on the topline: tell the White House what would work.

The time pressure

There are two time pressures driving things right now.

On the macro level, there is the necessity of getting everything done by the end of the year. While it’s not a written rule, history is pretty clear that once lawmakers enter a midterm election year, the ability to coalesce around anything substantial dissipates dramatically. Multiply that by about 10 this Congress given the exceedingly bare Democratic majorities.

The more immediate trigger, of course, is the commitment to House Democratic moderates to vote on the Senate-passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill by September 27. Progressives haven’t backed off their pledge to kill that vote if it moves forward.

Moderates came away from their meeting with the impression that that vote was still on. Progressives made clear they’d told Biden it need to be moved. Biden made no explicit commitment.

“Members said it’s just kind of arbitrary to us. What are the possibilities?” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden told reporters, per CNN’s Manu Raju and Ted Barrett. “And the President left it at, and said: ‘Let me think it over, and talk to Sen. Schumer, Speaker Pelosi and get back.'”

The bottom line here is the most immediate issue Biden and Democratic leaders need to resolve is the looming infrastructure vote.

Biden pressed lawmakers to make “significant progress” on the economic and climate package by early next week, according to one participant. It’s a hint toward the goal right now — lock in some kind of framework that gives progressives a reason to vote for the infrastructure bill.

It’s a heavy, heavy lift. But something to keep a close eye on.

One thing to keep in mind, however: people involved expect no quick solution or end to this process. The divides are too deep at the moment, and the stakes are too high to shut anything down.

As one senior Democratic aide joked in reference to past major congressional debates and action: “We do some of our best work around the holidays.”

Quote of the day

“We are calm and everybody’s good and our work is almost done. So we’re in good shape.” — Pelosi

Yes, everyone not in Generation Z picked up the very “Kevin Bacon in the final-scene-of-Animal House” vibes from that remark.

(To be clear, that was not its intent, nor the view of where things actually stand. But a little levity isn’t a bad thing.)

The official White House view, per a readout sent out Wednesday night

The President hosted three productive and candid meetings with congressional Democrats, representing a wide range of views of the caucuses in both Chambers, about the urgent need to deliver for the American middle class through the Build Back Better Act and the bipartisan infrastructure deal. This was an important opportunity for the President to engage with Members and hear their perspectives, and progress was made toward finding the pathway forward for lowering costs for hardworking people and ensuring that our economic growth strategy is based on investing in families, not more giveaways to big corporations and the wealthiest taxpayers. There is more work ahead in the coming days, and he and his team will have follow-up meetings, starting tomorrow, to continue to advance the process of passing these critical bills.

About the progressive position

One thing to keep in mind as lawmakers enter a critical period in advance of the scheduled September 27 infrastructure vote: for the better part of the last nine months, it has been progressives who have compromised.

  • It was progressives who were mostly boxed out of the negotiations over the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, yet agreed in the Senate to support the measure in order to keep the process moving.
  • It was progressives who agreed to a $3.5 trillion topline for the budget blueprint after laying out numbers like $10 trillion or $6 trillion.
  • And it’s progressives who in large part have been the biggest boosters of the key planks in Biden’s $3.5 trillion economic and climate package — which is comprised almost entirely on (quite progressive) policy planks Biden campaigned on.

The point here is not some robust defense of progressives, but instead to show why progressives are so firm in their position right now.

“We’ve been the ones constantly giving way in order to keep things on the tracks,” one House Democrat told CNN. “Now it’s time for our priorities to be the focus.”

Some behind-the-scenes tension

As Biden began his biggest legislative outreach day to date at the White House, Democrats on Capitol Hill were noticeably losing patience with the process

One House Democrat said Biden’s direct engagement was welcome. But the member made clear he — and many of his colleagues — didn’t understand why it had taken so long.

“It’s about damn time,” the member told CNN in a text. “It’s not exactly a state secret we’ve been at each other’s throats for weeks.”

White House officials said Biden’s engagement has been carefully calibrated to have the most substantial effect. He’s been on the phone with members and had several private meetings in recent weeks.

But some House members are pointing the finger at Biden himself for not doing more to cultivate relationships outside of the Senate. That message had been delivered to senior White House officials multiple times over the course of the last several weeks, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Where it comes from

It’s important to note here that members aren’t really referring to his legislative affairs team — one that is generally respected and has engaged intensively across the caucus. But the direct attention from the President himself is a critical tool — one many House Democrats thought would be coming in spades given Biden’s legislative bona fides.

Biden campaigned for a big chunk of the frontline Democrats in 2018. Some clearly thought there would be a more open line of communication with him.

It’s also not all that surprising that a more than three-decade veteran of the Senate would spend more time there than in the lower chamber. Not to mention the Senate was viewed as the playing field for the bipartisan infrastructure talks.

But in a moment when the President’s entire legislative agenda is going to be determined by the House of Representatives, it’s worth noting the sense of frustration.

“If I were the President of the United States in a time like this in our nation’s history with a platter of legislative opportunities that are facing us, would I spend a lot more time cultivating relationships? Darn right I would,” one Democratic House member said. “I am troubled by the inability it seems by the administration to build the connections and the trust and the relationships that are so important. The former President did it pretty well. He brought members to Camp David. He cultivated relationships in a way that executives tend to do. That is not condemnation, it’s just frustration.”

A key caveat here: member frustration can be quelled pretty quickly when their concerns are not only heard, but acted on. Members who met with Biden on Wednesday came away universally pleased with the opportunity.

Breaking: House members dislike Senate counterparts

It’s a tale as old as time, but it’s always a critical piece of big negotiations: some House Democrats are also blaming the other side of the Capitol.

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth said he can’t begin to finalize a reconciliation package that progressives are calling for until he knows what is going to be included in the package, how much the bill is going to cost or what senators actually want. Aides debriefed on Democratic Senate lunches this week have complained that senators are largely just talking in circles, not engaged in a direct negotiation about what each corner is willing to give.

“Clearly, one of the problems is we don’t know what the Senate will do,” Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat, said.

To be fair …

Members have firmly entered the time-honored tradition of the airing of grievances. This is an enormously consequential negotiation and it is not remotely unusual for things to get worse before they get better. Nor are members being anxious or displeased about the state of those talks a new phenomenon.

Senators look down on House members. House members loathe their Senate counterparts. It’s a tried-and-true bipartisan tradition.

But to a degree, given it’s the first major battle of a new administration and newly unified Democratic Congress, it has some echoes of the 2017 Republican Obamacare repeal effort, when House Republicans fumbled the ball amid sharp differences between conservatives and moderates.

House Republicans eventually found a pathway forward (though not one that could get through the Senate).

Oh, by the way

Democrats still have to map out a path forward to fund the government beyond next Thursday and avoid the first US default in the country’s history.

It was something discussed by Biden and the Democratic leaders on Wednesday, even if it wasn’t the primary focus of their meeting, according to one personal familiar with the discussion.

To be clear, House Democrats passed a bill to do just that. They don’t have the votes for that bill in the Senate due to near-unified GOP opposition. Democrats are furious at what they view as equal parts intransigent and irresponsible. They plan to continue to hammer that in the days ahead, multiple officials and aides said.

But quietly, CNN is told, there are discussions about an alternative to at least keep the government funded. What that would entail — or if Democrats take that path — is not yet clear. But it underscores a quiet view on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue: a government shutdown at this highest stakes of moments for Biden’s domestic legislative agenda is simply not an acceptable outcome.

A caveat here

Most Democrats on Capitol Hill aren’t acknowledging (at least out loud) what they are going to do when Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling next week.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, has said a vote to fund the government and raise the country’s borrowing limit won’t happen until next week, which will give Congress just a handful of days to come up with a plan B to avert a government shutdown. The options at this point are limited. With every passing day they become more so. So, what can Democrats actually do to raise the debt ceiling on their own?

Yarmuth tipped his hat Wednesday that Democrats are quietly exploring their options. Yarmuth said his staff counsel was looking at it, but he was fuzzy on what the political appetite there would be for Democrats to go it alone.

On whether Democrats could raise the debt ceiling on their own, Yarmuth said it is, in fact, “possible for us to do it.”

But, he quickly added, “I have rarely heard the speaker and leadership more adamant about anything that they are not going to do this through reconciliation.”

Aides say Democrats essentially have two options if they have to pursue this without Republicans:

  • They can amend the current budget resolution that they are using to write their $3.5 trillion social safety net.
  • They can create an entirely separate budget resolution to raise the debt ceiling.

So if Democrats can do it alone, why is there such a fight?

Democrats fundamentally believe that it’s the responsibility of everyone to pay the check for spending that they argue Republicans and Democrats are both responsible for.

Under Trump, Congress passed trillions in new spending to protect against the coronavirus and buoy the economy, and Democrats argue Republicans racked up more debt with their 2017 tax bill. For Democrats, this is a matter of fairness. But there are also political reasons why raising the debt ceiling alone is problematic.

Both amending the budget resolution and writing another one would require a vote-a-rama, an unpleasant marathon amendment vote series that leaves members vulnerable to tough votes.

Both options would also require Democrats to lay out exactly how much more money they will need to pay down the country’s debt. They literally have to write exactly how much they are going to spend. If you are running in a tough state, that could be politically toxic for a reelection.

The political ads virtually write themselves — something Republicans are keenly aware as they’ve stuck to their opposition.

The government funding bill is not a walk in the park, either.

Even if Democrats decouple the debt ceiling from the government spending bill, there are still other sticking points that Democrats and Republicans have to work through. The differences aren’t insurmountable, but they are real and they require time, something that Congress doesn’t exactly have in spades right now.

Republicans have filed their own short-term spending bill that contains alternative language on how to process Afghan refugees and includes the additional $1 billion in iron dome funding, something that was stripped from the House bill.

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