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Biden keeps his hands off Hill coronavirus response as fight heats up

The apparent Democratic presidential nominee is steering clear of policy demands in an attempt to stay above the fray.
Image: Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer
It is Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, not their party's presidential nominee-in-waiting, who have emerged as the face of the Democratic coronavirus recovery effort. Patrick Semansky / AP file

WASHINGTON — As Congress passes trillions of dollars in coronavirus aid, Joe Biden has kept his distance from the unprecedented relief push and deferred to his allies on Capitol Hill to hash out solutions to the calamity, focusing instead on bashing President Donald Trump as a failed leader.

It is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and not the apparent Democratic presidential nominee, who have emerged as the face of the party’s recovery effort. Biden periodically talks to them, but the conversations tend to be informal updates and a trading of ideas rather than official consultations, according to congressional and campaign aides familiar with the conversations.

And the former vice president and 36-year senator hasn’t drawn policy red lines, publicly or privately, as Democrats wage an intensifying battle with the GOP over the next round of aid.

Biden and his campaign “aren’t inserting themselves into negotiations,” a senior Senate Democratic aide said. “He knows enough about Congress to know that Democratic leaders in the House and Senate would bristle.”

The aide, who was given anonymity to discuss private dynamics, said Biden’s team is active in sharing his plans with Capitol Hill allies and is in “lockstep” messaging harmony with them. But the aide warned that if Biden were to involve himself in policy talks, that “would add another variable, which makes negotiations more difficult.”

Biden’s reluctance to lay down markers comes as he navigates a dilemma: Party leaders, dealing with a Republican Senate and Trump, have to settle for policies that fall short of progressive preferences. If he engages, Biden not only risks undercutting his party but also tying himself too closely to outcomes that contradict his pitch of Franklin D. Roosevelt-size ambitions.

Trump has portrayed his Democratic rival as unaware of current efforts. “I saw Joe Biden on television yesterday," Trump told the Fox Business Network last week. "And if you watch him, he knows nothing — he knows absolutely nothing.” The president has printed his name on the $1,200 stimulus checks to families and taken credit for bipartisan relief measures that have kept many businesses afloat.

Biden mum on HEROES Act

Biden and Pelosi have “spoken several times about the coronavirus crisis,” a source familiar with the conversations said. The apparent nominee checks in with Schumer by phone “every so often” to touch base, a Democratic aide said, adding that Schumer has good relationships and regular communication with Biden’s staff. A Biden aide confirmed that he's in touch with Pelosi and Schumer, but would not elaborate on how often they speak or the nature of the conversations.

Last Friday, House Democrats passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act that includes relief for state and local governments, unemployment benefits, another round of $1,200 direct payments to individuals, and a federal standard to allow all Americans to vote by mail. It’s a negotiating move designed to pressure Senate Republicans amid an escalating partisan battle.

But Biden never released so much as a statement or a tweet about the legislation.

The bill drew some pushback from the left for excluding a measure to cover payrolls during the crisis, which led to Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., voting against it. It also didn’t include recurring direct payments and student loan forgiveness policies that liberals wanted.

A Biden aide declined to comment on the HEROES Act and referred NBC News to a statement from deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield calling on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to stop downplaying the urgency of additional relief.

“It's long past time for Leader McConnell and President Trump to finally show some urgency and sit down with Speaker Pelosi to craft the next stimulus package, one that will put the communities on the front lines of this fight and the middle class first,” Bedingfield said in the statement.

A senior White House official said Biden’s involvement in the pandemic debate has been limited to issuing “platitudes about how he’d ‘handle it better’ without” offering a clear contrasting vision.

While Biden's media appearances have been sparse, Pelosi has appeared in more than 50 television interviews, in addition to her regular press conferences, to discuss the party's legislative response.

Trump trails nationally and in key states

Some on the left say Biden's hands-off approach to the coronavirus response makes sense and that taking sides in an internal squabble could hinder his goal of coalescing the party behind him.

“I think that he's playing things decently. He’s pushed for some progressive measures but for the most part is above the partisan fray,” Sean McElwee, a progressive activist and the co-founder of Data For Progress, said. “I think he needs to finish getting his campaign straight and uniting the party.”

McElwee said it's “hard to backseat quarterback the guy who is winning pretty definitively.”

Biden leads Trump by 11 points in a new Quinnipiac University poll and by 5 points in a YouGov survey released this week. The latest battleground polls show him ahead of the president in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida and even Arizona, albeit sometimes by narrow margins.

In virtual campaign events, Biden talks about the ideas he’d support if elected president, such as offering free COVID-19 treatment and fully subsidizing COBRA payments for the coronavirus jobless to keep their health insurance. But he hasn’t sought to rally public support for the bills that Congress has been working on, sticking instead to broad strokes.

After Trump enacted the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, Biden called it "a good start" and called for additional measures. One of them was student loan forgiveness of $10,000, a policy that Pelosi had already endorsed. At a LULAC town hall this month, Biden voiced support for an extra $13 per hour pay for frontline workers as Democrats were crafting it in the HEROES Act.

His campaign has drawn mockery from Trump as “Hiden Biden.” The president told supporters in a fundraising email over the weekend his opponent was “hiding in his basement.”

Biden’s hands-off approach has been unfavorably compared to that of then-Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain during the 2008 economic crash, when the two nominees were front and center in the response as their respective party’s de facto leaders.

John Weaver, a former McCain aide who is now a staunch Trump critic, said the two situations are different, in part because McCain and Obama were officially the nominees at the time.

“Given that we have a split Congress, at the end of the day the negotiations are really between [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell and Pelosi,” he said. “The armchair quarterbacks on the Internet and in the alternate reality known as Twitter don't know anything about how to run a campaign.”