WASHINGTON — Just before 10 p.m. on Thursday, reporters lined a basement hallway of the Capitol, many of them sitting on the stone floor or leaning against the painted brick walls beneath exposed HVAC pipes, waiting. nevertheless waiting.
After a long day of public promises and negotiations, senior White House officials were behind the closed door of an office there trying to rescue President Joe Biden’s governing agenda from two Democratic senators who seemed intent on wounding it irreparably.
Those two senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — had each met by the week with Biden and his advisers, and had not appeared to budge. in addition House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and White House press secretary Jen Psaki had held firm all day, promising a vote they intended to win on Thursday night. And the complete-court press had come to this: a closed-door meeting in the basement, with the whole House of Representatives and the media waiting on the results.
When Manchin emerged around 10:30 p.m., he told reporters, “I don’t see a deal tonight.” After the White House bigwigs paraded by the Capitol to Pelosi’s office to report back, the speaker confirmed it: No deal, and no vote Thursday night.
They would try again mañana.
The details of the situation are a bit convoluted; essentially, Biden announced the chief of his economic agenda this spring as a transformative package of infrastructure, climate change and social programs that would be among the largest government expansions in history. In order to get some Republican sustain for part of the package, it was divided into two bills.
The first part is the $1.2-trillion bipartisan infrastructure framework (known as “BIF” and distinct like the name of the villain in “Back to the Future”), which was negotiated with Republican senators by Manchin and Sinema. It has passed the Senate and awaits its House vote.
The second part is the $3.5-trillion Build Back Better Act, a social spending and climate change bill that Biden promised was a “tandem” item — that is, its passage was tied to passage of the other bill. The second bill, however, can be passed in the Senate without any Republican sustain by the budget reconciliation course of action — but only as long as every Democrat senator votes to pass it. The details of that bill are nevertheless being hammered out in the House.
Here’s the bind: members of the House progressive caucus have insisted they will not vote for the BIF until they are sure Build Back Better will pass. But Manchin and Sinema are equally insistent that they will not vote to pass Build Back Better in anything like its current form. They’ll kill it in the Senate. And if that’s a possibility, progressives will kill BIF in the House.
It was a “Reservoir Dogs” standoff, in legislative form.
You have to think that as those White House leaders met with the two holdout senators Thursday, part of their message was how much was at stake here for Biden’s presidency.
It is, of course, the chief of his economic agenda and the climate change promises he ran on. Biden has staked his administration on convincing Americans that big government can work for them. The package of bills is the means to deliver.
But it goes beyond that.
Biden’s potential as a candidate for president lay in both his experience and in his reputation for moderation. He has often spoken about his ability, both as a senator and as vice-president, to get things done amid the partisan gridlock of Congress. As Psaki said optimistically on Thursday, Biden and the Democratic congressional leaders “have more experience getting legislation across the finish line than any group of Democratic leaders in history.”
And in addition here the gridlock is caused by two members of their own party.
additionally, Manchin and Sinema are portraying themselves — and being portrayed in the media — as “moderate” Democrats who are standing firm against the “progressive” wing of their party. On Wednesday, Manchin underlined that distinction by describing the current Build Back Better plan as a “definition of fiscal insanity” that would “vengefully tax for the sake of wishful spending.”
But the plan he and Sinema oppose is not a product of Bernie Sanders and the “Squad” — it is the central plank of Biden’s governing platform. And Biden’s calling card is that he is the moderate. Public opinion surveys show his proposal is popular, and the bulk of Biden’s Democratic colleagues in Congress are standing behind his plan. On Thursday, Pelosi — the definition of a mainstream Democrat — called the Build Back Better Act “the culmination of my service in Congress.”
Republicans call Biden a “socialist” — or far worse — but within his own party, his transformational program is the mainstream.
Except to Manchin and Sinema. They are not just staring down the progressive caucus of House Democrats and imperilling a single bill, but attempting to rob Biden of his identity as a moderate. And in doing so, they threaten to prove false his claim that he can navigate Congress to get things done.
A deal may nevertheless get done. Democratic members of Congress talking to reporters Friday were without exception optimistic that an agreement to pass both BIF and Build Back Better was imminent, and a House vote on BIF would nevertheless happen. Perhaps already Friday.
As White House advisers must have emphasized in the basement meeting on Thursday night, a whole lot is resting on it — an era-defining level of infrastructure spending, social program expansion and climate mitigation. And the possible and potential, to some large extent, of Biden’s complete presidency.
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