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Biden wanted action on his agenda before jetting to Europe. Why progressives balked.

A confluence of deadlines — a climate change conference, Virginia's tight governor's race — contributed to a frenetic push that culminated in a framework announcement Thursday.
Image: Biden To Meet Democrats On Capitol Hill Before Europe Trip
President Joe Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., exit after a House Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol, on Thursday.Ting Shen / Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — For President Joe Biden, there was no time left to waste in creating a sense of momentum for his domestic agenda.

Biden raced this week to stitch together a $1.75 trillion revision of his "Build Back Better" plan, personally pressured House Democrats to vote for his $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and addressed the nation on the merits of both measures just hours before he departed for a trip overseas.

The frenetic rush flowed from a confluence of deadlines.

Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee for governor in Virginia, urged the White House to deliver on the infrastructure bill before voters go to the polls Tuesday. And, perhaps most important, Biden didn't want to walk empty-handed into a major climate conference in Scotland that begins Sunday.

He had plenty of justification to step on the gas.

But for a band of recalcitrant House progressives, the acceleration amounted to a false urgency of now — an artificial deadline that prioritized political optics over substance.

They vowed to vote down the infrastructure bill to ensure they could continue to negotiate on the Build Back Better framework that Biden struck with Senate moderates Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. That threat forced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to cancel a planned vote Thursday evening.

"Pelosi called," one lawmaker said. "I said I'm a 'no' until [there's] a deal."

Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, told NBC News that she questions the credibility of self-imposed deadlines that Democrats keep setting for Biden's agenda, "considering that we don't meet those deadlines."

But she highlighted their value at the same time.

"I do acknowledge that when you set a deadline, it tends to focus people's minds on getting results," she said. "There's a sense of urgency."

McAuliffe, who hails from the centrist wing of the party, doesn't have much time left. His campaign repeatedly asked the White House to speed up work on the infrastructure bill, according to one of his advisers. The perception of movement Thursday was helpful, the adviser added, but "if that could have happened two weeks ago, much better."

For months, Democratic lawmakers pleaded with Biden and White House officials to get more engaged in negotiations on Capitol Hill and to begin the politically bloody work of triage on the "Build Back Better" plan. Manchin had laid down a marker of $1.5 trillion over the summer in a long-secret memo signed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

“When you have differences, you never can start early enough. And their differences were essential,” Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., said of the red lines Manchin memorialized in July. “That’s not only an alarm. That’s kamikaze.”

Nearly a month before his Thursday visit to the Capitol, Biden was faced with a similar standoff between moderates and progressives. At the time, Pelosi had promised to put the infrastructure bill on the floor, and progressives had balked at voting for it. Short of the votes for infrastructure, Biden urged lawmakers to continue working toward a deal on the "Build Back Better" plan.

Biden waited until last week to start a new round of shuttle diplomacy — meeting with the various factions of his party separately, rather than bringing together a handful of lawmakers from each chamber and each side — and then he kicked into overdrive to produce a framework that didn't alienate Manchin and Sinema. It was enough to address one of the key drivers of his deadline: fleshing out a $555 billion climate change provision before he headed to Europe.

"The president of the United States being able to stand up in the world stage and say he is working towards a massive multi-hundred-billion-dollar investment in climate and clean energy is just a profound signal to the world of America's seriousness on this issue," Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, told reporters on Air Force One.

The House voted Thursday night to temporarily extend authorization for the nation's highway projects, but it now seems unlikely that the broader infrastructure bill will pass before Virginia polls close Tuesday.

In his Thursday morning meeting with House Democrats in the Capitol, Biden called the moment an "inflection point" at which they could demonstrate that the U.S. government "can function."

Instead, progressives showed they care more about enacting Biden's agenda than meeting his deadlines.

“Members of our caucus will not vote for the infrastructure bill without the Build Back Better Act,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the progressive caucus chair. “We will work immediately to finalize and pass both pieces of legislation through the House together.”