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Biden steps into Democrats' brawl to rescue his agenda

Analysis: While there was no evidence of progress toward a deal Wednesday, the president was tacitly acknowledging the $3.5 trillion budget bill would have to be cut back.
President Joe Biden speaks in Mather, Calif., on Sept. 13, 2021.
If the president can't fashion a compromise, he risks losing roughly $4 trillion worth of spending on social safety net and infrastructure programs.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is scrambling this week to save his agenda from a bitter fight among fellow Democrats — and signaling that he will sacrifice some parts of it to secure others.

If the president can't fashion a compromise, he risks losing roughly $4 trillion worth of spending on social safety net and infrastructure programs. On the other hand, a little legislative magic could deliver most of his agenda in a quick one-two punch.

Biden met at the White House on Wednesday with a parade of lawmakers, including party leaders and, separately, representatives of the warring progressive and moderate factions. Each side is holding a legislative hostage: the moderates are threatening to kill a $3.5 trillion budget measure, and the progressives are threatening to kill a bipartisan infrastructure bill. Neither side trusts the other.

While there was no evidence of progress toward a deal Wednesday, Biden and White House officials are tacitly acknowledging their $3.5 trillion budget bill will have to be cut back.

In his meeting with moderates, the president pressed lawmakers — without success — to name their preferred dollar figure, according to a person briefed on the session. At the same time, his aides have asked allies in Congress to identify their top priorities in the measure, according to a senior Senate Democratic aide — a strong indication the White House is looking for programs that can be cut. And White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden is not married to the bottom line of the budget bill.

"The president has always been open to negotiations and discussions and knew that he was not going to be, alone, able to wave a magic wand and pass a proposal," Psaki said Wednesday.

The real question is how much each wing of the party is willing to give. And so far, the answer is: nothing.

After failing to elicit even a bottom-line spending figure from moderates, Biden told Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to "find a number you're comfortable with based on the needs you still have and how we deliver it to the American people," Manchin said.

Likewise, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said in a statement that her allies won't vote for infrastructure unless the budget measure is in hand first.

In recent days, West Wing officials have shown a greater appreciation for the risk that Biden could emerge empty-handed if he didn't personally engage with Congress, according to Democratic sources close to the White House.

"There was a misconception in the first few months that Biden was going to have this transformational presidency; it was an extreme honeymoon period," said one Democratic strategist who speaks frequently to top administration officials. "Now, there's a growing sense that something needs to happen."

House moderates are demanding that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., fulfill her vow to put the infrastructure bill to a vote by Monday, and their chief allies across the Capitol, Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., are insisting on shrinking the budget measure.

Progressives worry that moderates will walk away if the infrastructure bill passes. They want Pelosi to hold it up until the unfinished budget measure is ready for a vote.

"Speaker Pelosi also committed that we were not going forward with one piece without the other," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a leading progressive, said on MSNBC. "That is something that the president of the United States committed to. This is something that we all agreed to from the beginning."

They are also pressing Biden to stick as close to the $3.5 trillion bottom line as possible.

The fight over timing is based in the deep distrust between the wings of the Democratic Party, and Biden's meetings did little to lower the acrimony.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., a prominent progressive, accused moderates of carrying water for industry.

"The debates we’re having are not about progressives versus moderates, but it’s a fight between the special interests who don’t want to pay their fair share, and making sure we build back better for the American people," he said in a statement after the progressives' meeting with Biden.

In accordance with her promise, Pelosi plans to hold a vote on the infrastructure bill Monday. If there's no deal on the budget bill by then, progressives say, they will shoot down the infrastructure measure. Sinema has said the budget is dead if the infrastructure bill goes down. That was the situation before Biden's meetings and after them.

The lawmakers walked out of the White House with nothing in hand but chocolate chip cookies, individually wrapped in gold with a presidential seal.

To nail down his priorities, he'll have to make the pot a little sweeter than that for both factions.