By Phil Mattingly, CNN
President Joe Biden’s schedule is making it clear: The White House is ready to seal a deal on his legislative agenda.
There are unannounced meetings with the lawmakers that hold the keys to an agreement. There are scheduled meetings with 17 lawmakers representing the two “wings” in the party’s talks. There’s travel to sell the plan to the public. There’s even a CNN town hall.
Behind it all, there’s significant anxiety — or, in many cases, outright frustration — on Capitol Hill about the pace of talks and seemingly intractable differences. Everyone is keenly aware of deadlines and Biden’s major foreign trip a little more than a week away.
And it’s the President, to many of those lawmakers, who is the key to unlocking things. This week represents his clearest push yet to do so.
“He’s the guy here,” one Democrat close to talks said of Biden. “He knows it. We know it. The people on the fence know it. Now it’s time to do something with that.”
The bottom line is that White House officials say they are “encouraged.” They say the pace of talks has “accelerated.” For any anxiety on Capitol Hill, it’s largely due to the fact that the intensive negotiations of the last 10 days have been kept to a small circle. That circle is starting to expand — a signal that things are, in fact, starting to move. But the most critical decisions — from approach to the overall price tag to how to address certain key planks in Biden’s proposal — still haven’t been made, people involved in the talks say.
The most critical of all — when to move forward toward votes — is hanging over everything.
What to watch Tuesday
Biden will meet with Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in the morning. Biden will then host two separate meetings, one with progressive members of Congress at 2 p.m. ET and a second with moderate members at 4:30 p.m. ET.
A meeting with Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who Biden spoke to by phone on Monday, is also possible, according to a person familiar with the planning.
Who will attend
- Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington
- Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York
- Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin
- Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan
- Rep. Ro Khanna of California
- Rep. Barbara Lee of California
- Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts
- Rep. Jared Huffman of California
- Rep. Jimmy Gomez of California
- Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington
- Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey
- Rep. Tom O’Halleran of Arizona
- Rep. Ami Bera of California
- Rep. Mike Thompson of California
- Sen. Jon Tester of Montana
- Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada
- Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia
Where things stand
Manchin and Sen. Bernie Sanders, after simmering closed-door frustrations burst into the public, are now “talking” — and, per CNN’s Manu Raju, also taking somewhat awkward public photos together.
Manchin met privately with Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progress Caucus, on Monday — just a few hours after Jayapal quietly met with Biden at the White House.
Now, Manchin is always clear that he’s game to meet with just about anyone, whenever.
But these meetings are important given this moment in the negotiations. Biden, advisers say, has long believed he can get to an agreement with Manchin. That’s based primarily on the many discussions they’ve had over the last two months (and, to a degree, over his 10 months in office) about not just the policy but their overall shared goals.
To be clear, it will be scaled back significantly, but both want an outcome. Or at least that’s how Biden has viewed things, according to those advisers. Progressives have been highly skeptical that is the case, skepticism that has only grown in recent days. Any effort to convince them otherwise carries weight — and importance — given the critical stage of the talks.
The message from the top
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, got at the reality of the current moment for his caucus — and the message that officials plan to press hard in the days ahead:
“We all know in order to pass meaningful legislation, we must put aside our differences and find common ground within our party. As with any bill of such historic proportions, not every member will get everything he or she wants. But at the end of the day, we will pass legislation that dramatically improves the lives of the American people.”
One thing to keep in mind
The White House does know where Manchin stands on his policy concerns. Not only has he communicated his issues with top officials — and at times, directly with Biden himself — for weeks, but he’s also been public about many of them.
Pelosi, Schumer and their top policy staffers are fully looped in on where things stand, having been deeply engaged with the effort to resolve — or craft out of thin air — policy solutions to the concerns raised by Manchin and Sinema. On relevant issues, committee chairs and staff are also looped in, people involved say. The circle is, by design, small.
While there is significant — and it’s fair to say, palpable — frustration on Capitol Hill with what appears to be a lack of willingness on Biden’s part to put his foot down and force action, a big part of the reason is precisely because White House officials know where Manchin stands.
Much of what has transpired over the course of the last week to 10 days has been an effort to find a sweet spot between Manchin’s positions and the goals laid out in Biden’s agenda. A separate effort with Sinema has also been conducted.
This isn’t a new or particularly revelatory moment in legislating. When an administration can’t afford to lose a single vote in the Senate and there is one senator (or in this case, two) making specific demands, this is how it goes.
Gaming it out
So, for example, there were significant efforts between White House and congressional staff to revise the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) in a way that addressed Manchin’s clearly stated — and, it should be noted, almost entirely rejected by other Democrats — concerns with the $150 billion proposal.
Those efforts, according to people involved, did little to make headway against Manchin’s opposition.
At the same time, and now with increasing intensity, an effort was underway to identify other areas in the climate package that could be expanded — or beefed up, or tweaked — to get at (or at least close to) the overall climate goals of the package should the CEPP have to fall out in order to ensure Manchin’s support.
Where they land on that front will also the need to satisfy every Democrat for whom climate is *the* central issue in the sweeping package.
Overall, it’s quite a balancing act.
What it all means
The above is just a single example — one that is equal parts arduous and intensive.
Now multiply that by the number of issues Manchin has raised about the package, plus the need to fit the changes into a slimmed down topline price tag.
Sinema’s issues, according to multiple people involved, have proven more complicated (and fluid) to address and resolve, but a similar intensive effort has been underway for weeks.
This is the reality when there are no votes to spare. It’s immensely frustrating to other Democrats on Capitol Hill, something that could create problems when, or if, a deal is reached and the White House and Democratic leaders have to then go sell what they’ve come up with to the rank-and-file.
That’s a big reason why the efforts to communicate where things stand have ramped back up between a number of Biden calls over the weekend and the White House meetings scheduled Tuesday, officials say. And it’s also clear that when Biden and Democratic leaders decide to move forward, there will be extensive outreach across the caucuses to ensure everyone is fully read in on the final package.
But at the moment, Biden and Democratic leaders are primarily focused on pressing forward toward an agreement with the two holdout Democratic senators.
All that said
All of the above may be true and serve as evidence of tangible progress. But the clock is also ticking, and officials are keenly aware that the need to move has grown more and more urgent by the day.
That brings forth the reality that at some point Biden will have to do what some Democrats have been urging for weeks — say negotiations have gotten as far as possible and tell Manchin and Sinema (and anyone else who may be holding out) that things are moving forward.
They aren’t there yet — and White House officials make clear it’s a decision that would have to be made by Biden, Schumer and Pelosi. But conversations have been moving in that direction over the last two weeks, with Democrats on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue wary of letting things linger with no action as critical deadlines or vote triggers loom on the horizon.
So what is the deadline?
Schumer and Pelosi have continued to press for a resolution by October 31, when the current short-term surface transportation funding extension expires. Biden is also scheduled to be on an overseas trip — with stops that include the United Nations’ climate change conference — during that time. If there are unofficial deadlines, those would be it. But at this moment, actually *passing* both the infrastructure and economic and climate package by October 31 appears completely out of the question.
But White House officials have been careful not to set a firm deadline, and Manchin threw cold water on the end of the month idea to reporters on Monday.
“There’s an awful lot going on, I don’t know how that would happen,” Manchin said, referring to making an agreement by October 31, per CNN’s Morgan Rimmer. “If you can ever come to an agreement — a meeting of the minds — you might be able to work something out.”
The deadline, to the extent one exists, is pretty amorphous at the moment, but if Democrats learned anything from the late night, ultimately unsuccessful, push last month, it’s that deadlines create the impetus for action.
This isn’t revelatory, either — this is Congress in a nutshell. But it was an instructive moment in this specific process.
White House officials were clear that more progress was made in that roughly 12-hour period than had been made in weeks.
Is there an opening for an agreement on principles? Some clear and understood signal that marks tangible progress (and perhaps opens the door to passing the infrastructure package by end of the month)? Perhaps. That appears to be a best case scenario of sorts for Democrats at the moment. But the early part of this week will go a long way to determining the range of what’s possible.
An under-appreciated comment
One of the overarching debates in Washington has been whether Democrats, in an effort to scale back their initial $3.5 trillion ambitions, would choose to drop entire planks of the proposal (“do fewer things well,” as Speaker Nancy Pelosi framed it in a letter to colleagues) or do everything, with key elements put in place for shorter durations.
Moderate Democrats — especially the influential and sizable New Democrat Coalition — have pressed for the former, while progressives have made exceedingly clear the view the latter as the path forward.
But one thing that’s been clear behind the scenes is it’s not exactly a binary choice, officials say, even if it has been framed that way.
Some critical pieces may appear to be falling out of the package, but instead are actually addressed through different programs are pathways, through different pots of money. Others may explicitly make it in, but last only a short period of time. Others may live through more amorphous principles or markers teed up to be addressed later.
If the above seems confusing well, it is — primarily because things are so fluid. But the broader point is there are different legislative funding mechanisms and pathways beyond what Biden initially put on the table, to get at some of these issues.
A big part of this moment, given the constraints to the topline spending number and the objections to critical components, is policy staff attempting to identify those spaces. Things will most certainly drop out — at this point, few expect Biden’s free community college proposal to live in any substantive fashion. But to the degree key elements can live, even in a different form than originally envisioned, there is an effort to make it happen, people involved said.
It’s something Biden appeared to get at to a degree when he spoke to reporters on Friday.
“I’m of the view that it’s important to establish the principle on a whole range of issues without guaranteeing you get the whole 10 years,” Biden said. “It matters to establish it. You pass the principle, and you build on it.”
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