Joe Biden, Democrats still short of goal on big-spending agenda after months of dealmaking

President Biden was making scant visible progress Wednesday on his make-or-break domestic agenda despite months of meeting repeatedly with Democratic factions that can’t agree on two major spending bills that form the centerpiece of his presidency.

After another day of fruitless negotiations and intramural Democratic feuding, Mr. Biden appeared no closer to getting either a House vote on his $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan or a final framework for his proposed companion 10-year, $3.5 trillion social safety net package.

Months after Mr. Biden initially announced tentative agreements on those crucial elements of his “Build Back Better” agenda, the impasse Wednesday was essentially unchanged. Liberal Democrats were refusing to approve the roads-and-bridges infrastructure plan without a final agreement on the larger bill, and Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona were dug in against the total projected cost of the social spending measure.

With the end of the fiscal year arriving on Thursday, House Democrats did narrowly pass a stand-alone bill to suspend the debt ceiling on a party-line vote, likely averting a government shutdown Thursday but leaving open the possibility that the U.S. could default on its debts next month. 

In a clear sign that the president was scrambling to save his agenda, Mr. Biden canceled a planned COVID-related trip to Chicago on Wednesday. Instead, he held more meetings at the White House with holdout Democrats, seeking yet again to forge a deal between feuding moderates and liberals.

The president met late in the day with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, after White House aides met for hours with Ms. Sinema.

Mrs. Pelosi said she might delay the planned Thursday vote on the infrastructure bill while waiting for a deal with Senate Democrats on “legislative language” for the larger reconciliation bill. She has already postponed a promised floor vote this week on the smaller infrastructure bill in her quest for a deal.

Mr. Manchin retorted to reporters, “That won’t happen.”

“While I am hopeful that common ground can be found that would result in another historic investment in our nation, I cannot – and will not — support trillions in spending or an all-or-nothing approach that ignores the brutal fiscal reality our nation faces,” Mr. Manchin said.

Pointing fingers

Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat and key liberal voice in the House, said Ms. Sinema “is holding up the will of the entire Democratic Party.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded to a complaint by Rep. Debbie Dingell, Michigan Democrat, that Mr. Biden has been too busy “talking to two senators.”

“The president has spoken over the last several days with a range of different voices,” Ms. Psaki said. “He knows the most constructive role he can play in this moment is working to unify Democrats, and a big part of that, of course, is working towards an agreement to get votes in the Senate.”

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, said his fellow House liberals would “do the right thing” by defeating the president’s infrastructure plan if it moves forward without the more extensive social welfare proposal.

“This is one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the modern history of America. What matters is it’s done and done well,” Mr. Sanders told reporters.

The prolonged stalemate in his party is raising fresh doubts over the claim that Mr. Biden, who served 36 years in the Senate and eight as vice president, has the prowess to make things happen in Congress as a behind-the-scenes negotiator.

Little has changed in the legislative dynamic since June, when Mr. Biden blurted out that he might veto the bipartisan infrastructure bill if it comes to his desk without the companion $3.5 trillion social safety net measure. He backtracked on that fast-and-loose threat to prevent Republicans from abandoning their agreement on the smaller bill.

In the end, 19 Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, voted for the smaller infrastructure bill last month. Still, no Republicans in the House and Senate are likely to support the more extensive package.

The president has drawn ridicule for proclaiming this month that the larger spending package would cost Americans “zero.” He meant it would not add to the national debt — a dubious claim in itself — while downplaying the historic proposed tax increases.

Republicans say the president’s legislative troubles stem from a lack of leadership from the White House. Some say Mr. Biden, beset by foreign and domestic crises, is out of his depth and unwilling to take responsibility for the state of the country.

“Since Jan. 20, Democrats have controlled the House [of Representatives], the White House and the Senate,” said Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who leads the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “They have unified government and … Joe Biden has done nothing, but he’s blamed everyone else. He doesn’t believe the buck stops with him.”  

Leading congressional moderates and others say Mr. Biden’s problems arise from unrealistic ambitions for governing a narrowly divided country. He has to deal with a 50-50 Senate and a House where the Democratic majority can afford to lose only a few members on any vote.

“When the American people elect a president by 44,000 votes, have a completely, evenly divided Senate, have a Democratic margin that is the narrowest in seven decades, that’s probably not a mandate to transform America into a socialist country. But that’s what they’re trying to do. It’s widely out of proportion with the election results,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican and key bipartisan dealmaker. 

Some Democrats said they still believe Mr. Biden will emerge with most of what he wants, partly because failure is too terrible for the party to contemplate heading into the 2022 midterm election season.

“The legislative process is very messy, but in the last analysis, I think Biden’s going to end up with a significant program,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “The $1.2 trillion infrastructure package and probably another $2.5 trillion package — that’s $3.5 trillion he might be able to push through [a] bare Democratic-majority Congress. There are clearly divisions within the Democratic Party, but in the last analysis, I think he’s going to get two significant pieces of legislation passed, which, given the political conditions and the polarization of this country, is a very significant and notable achievement.”

Republican leaders say that if Mr. Biden had made good on his pledge to restore bipartisanship in Washington, much as he promised when campaigning for the White House last year, he would likely be in a much better position.

“Bipartisanship is a choice,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican. “So is partisan governing or at least an attempt to govern purely on a partisan basis, which is how the Biden administration and [congressional Democrats] have chosen to govern.

“All that our Democratic colleagues have to show as a result of their partisan choice is a parade of failures for the American people,” Mr. Cornyn said. “We need to do better, and we can do better.”

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, South Dakota Republican, said Democrats should have seen the legislative train wreck coming.

“They have known for some time, that when they got power in the government, if they were going to run it with an iron fist and try and run roughshod and steamroll the minority and steamroll even their own members, and do everything [with] 51 votes,” Mr. Thune said, “that this is what they were going to end up with.”

Mike McKenna, who served as deputy director of the White House office of legislative affairs under President Trump, said Mr. Biden’s meetings this week with lawmakers indicate his administration is unprepared for the vote.

“The day you start preparing for this vote is Jan. 20, not the week before [the vote],” said Mr. McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times.

Instead of canceling his trip to Chicago, Mr. Biden should have used the visit as an opportunity to invite lawmakers on Air Force One and sell them on his spending packages, Mr. McKenna said.

“Canceling the Chicago trip did nothing for them but make them look ill-prepared,” he said. “Members love trips to the White House or rides on Air Force One.”

Jeff Mordock contributed to this report.

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