Biden meets with more than a dozen key Democrats as infrastructure and budget bills hang in the balance

Politics

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks outside the White House with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA).
Kevin Dietsch | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — After weeks of rising tensions among congressional Democrats, President Joe Biden is stepping in Wednesday to personally attempt to resolve divisions that are threatening to tear the Democratic caucus apart and tank the president’s first-term domestic agenda.

Biden is hosting key members of at least four warring factions of congressional Democrats on Wednesday afternoon: moderates in the House, progressives in the House, moderates in the Senate and progressives in the Senate.

Biden’s goal is to broker a compromise between the different groups and to find common ground on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a $3 trillion-plus climate and social safety net bill.

These delicate intraparty negotiations are taking place against the backdrop of two more looming but unrelated deadlines: a Sept. 30 deadline to fund the government or risk a shutdown, and a likely mid-October deadline to raise the debt ceiling or risk the United States defaulting on its sovereign debt. 

Each of these issues, the debt ceiling and the annual government funding bill, has traditionally required high-wire negotiations between Congress and the White House. But neither of them will be Biden’s priority on Wednesday.

While the specifics change hour by hour, at the heart of the tension within the Democratic caucuses is that House moderates don’t want to vote for a huge green energy and education bill until their priority — a bipartisan infrastructure bill — passes the House first.

But House progressives don’t want to vote in favor of the bipartisan infrastructure bill until their top priority, the social safety net legislation, passes the Senate.

The schedule of Biden’s meetings Wednesday is also relevant. Biden is meeting with moderate Democrats first, and then progressives later on in the day.

This suggests that moderates will get a chance to explain to Biden what their red lines are. And then after that, Biden will work with progressives to determine what other ways they might incorporate progressive priorities into the huge bills, such that enough progressives can come to see the bills as a victory for their priorities.

It also signals that the progressives, who outnumber moderates in the House, will get the last word.

After a career spent negotiating bills in the Senate, Biden is no stranger to tough talks and compromise. But his style of negotiating typically relies on personal trust and long-term friendships.

After he helped to broker a compromise between Republicans and Democrats on infrastructure this summer, Biden explained that he and the senators involved “go back a long way, where we’re used to doing one thing: Give each other our word and that’s the end.”

But when it comes to key progressives in the House, Biden does not have that kind of trust.

On the contrary, many House progressives are privately skeptical of Biden’s progressive bona fides. They view him as fundamentally a centrist, someone who talks about progressive principles but who eventually compromises on those principles in order to make a deal and pass a watered-down bill.

First, the centrists

Starting at 2 p.m. ET, the president huddled with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Pelosi’s meeting with Biden came as she was weighing whether to uphold a pledge to centrists to schedule a vote on the infrastructure bill for Monday, Sept. 27.

House progressives have threatened to sink that vote if the Senate doesn’t pass their social safety net and climate policy bill by Monday.

But given the complicated rules governing a big social safety net bill, which needs to be written in the style of a budget bill, Senate Democrats see no way that they could finish crafting the bill and vote on it before Monday.

Following their meeting Wednesday, Pelosi declined to say whether she still planned to hold the Monday vote.

“I will not be talking about that right now. We are on schedule, that’s all I will say. And we’re calm, and everybody’s good, and our work is almost done. So we’re in good shape,” she told reporters in the Capitol.

“We made some good progress,” Schumer said, describing the huddle as a “very good meeting.”

“We’re working hard, and we’re moving along,” he added.

Following the Pelosi and Schumer meeting, Biden met with a group of moderate Democrats from the House and Senate.

These moderates included Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the New Jersey Democrat who insisted that Pelosi schedule the Monday infrastructure vote.

The two most-watched Democratic members of the Senate, centrist Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, also attended this meeting, which began shortly after 3:30 p.m.

Both Manchin and Sinema have taken issue with the social safety net bill’s proposed $3.5 trillion price tag. Manchin has even urged his party to wait for months to pass the bill — something that infuriates House progressives. They worry that if they vote to pass the centrists’ infrastructure bill now, without seeing the reconciliation bill pass first, then party leaders will water down the bill containing their priorities in order to win Manchin’s approval.

If either Sinema or Manchin votes against the big budget reconciliation bill, it would doom the plan.

This is likely part of the reason the president included two other centrist Democrats in this big meeting: Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Mark Warner of Virginia.

Warner and Tester both helped to craft the bipartisan infrastructure bill with Republicans earlier this summer and are known for their skill at negotiating different interests within the party.

Then, the progressives

Later in the day, Biden will huddle with key progressives.

One of them will be Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Jayapal leads the House faction demanding the Senate vote on the big House budget bill before she and her fellow progressives will come together to pass the infrastructure bill in the House.

On Tuesday evening, Jayapal met with Pelosi for more than an hour, and emerged confident Pelosi would not move forward with the infrastructure bill — something to which Pelosi has not publicly agreed.

“I don’t think the speaker is going to bring a bill up that is going to fail,” Jayapal told reporters, adding, “Our position has not changed.” Jayapal will be joined at the White House by several other House progressives.

Also at the meeting will be key progressives in the Senate, including Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Sanders and Wyden are both playing pivotal roles in crafting the spending and taxing provisions in the Democratic bill. But they are also leading voices for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party across both chambers in Congress.

Murray leads the committee with jurisdiction over several key provisions in the budget bill that matter most to House progressives: Child care subsidies, health insurance affordability, early education and free community college.

As Biden was meeting with lawmakers Wednesday, 11 liberal senators put more pressure on Pelosi to delay the infrastructure vote until the Senate passes the party’s budget bill.

“We strongly support the Congressional Progressive Caucus and other members in the House who have said they intend to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill only once the Build Back Better Act is passed,” the lawmakers wrote. “That is what we agreed to, it’s what the American people want, and it’s the only path forward for this Congress.”

The senators who signed on to the statement include Sanders and Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, all of whom will meet with Biden on Wednesday. The other Democrats who urged Pelosi to delay the infrastructure vote were Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Alex Padilla of California, Tina Smith of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

Below is a complete list of attendees on Wednesday, provided by the White House.

Leadership meeting, approximately 2 p.m.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Afternoon meeting, approximately 3:30 p.m.

Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J.

Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

Evening meeting, approximately 5:30 p.m.

Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

— CNBC’s Jacob Pramuk contributed to this report.

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