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As his economic plan hits a critical moment, Biden looks to home

The president traveled to Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday for the first time since he took office, using his birthplace to make the case for his agenda at a critical stage.

SCRANTON, Pa. — President Joe Biden’s increasingly urgent push for his economic agenda took him back to his hometown Wednesday, aiming to turn the conversation away from inside-the-Beltway negotiations with a more personal sales pitch.

Scranton isn't my home because of the memories it gave me. It’s my home because of the values it gave me,” he said.

Speaking at a railway museum to an audience that included extended family, friends and local Democrats, the president also sought to raise the stakes by warning that America’s global competitiveness — and with it a middle-class livelihood — risked slipping further backward without the kind of significant economic overhaul he’d proposed.

“Somewhere along the way we stopped investing in ourselves,” Biden said. “America is still the largest economy in the world. … But we risk losing our edge as a nation.”

A senior administration official declined to characterize Wednesday's event as a "closing argument" but said it was an important opportunity for Biden to "root himself" back in his hometown at an important moment.

Democrats remain deeply divided over how large the package should be and over what exactly should be in it. A major climate proposal could be removed from the legislation, and Biden told progressive lawmakers Tuesday that the final bill would likely drop tuition-free community college and curtail child tax credits.

While the White House hopes to close in on at least a final agreement among House and Senate Democrats — if not an actual vote — on both his bipartisan infrastructure deal and the larger reconciliation measure before he leaves for Europe next week, officials continue to tread carefully when discussing potential deadlines.

“We want to vote as soon as possible. And I think that that could be in the next couple of weeks. It could be sooner,” senior adviser Cedric Richmond said on MSNBC ahead of Biden’s trip. “The timeline is not as important as actually getting it done.”

The return to Scranton was more than just personal. When Biden began laying out his Build Back Better agenda as a presidential candidate, he chose Scranton to make the case. In a closing pitch to voters in the fall centered on the idea of "Scranton vs. Park Avenue," he argued that his administration would shift the economic playing field back in favor of Americans in places like his hometown.

The president is balancing public message events like Wednesday’s with ongoing, private discussions with wary Democratic lawmakers.

He is set to participate in a nationally televised town hall meeting Thursday night. On Monday, he will hold a pair of events in New Jersey to promote the legislation — a stop that will also allow him to boost the Democratic governor, who is seeking re-election the following week.

“The president has been engaged and will continue to be engaged in calls throughout the course of the day,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters traveling with Biden on Wednesday.

Outside groups are hoping to boost the legislation. Building Back Together, the pro-Biden nonprofit advocacy group, is launching a million-dollar ad campaign in Scranton and other important swing-state television markets.

The campaign, building on a $15 million blitz for Biden's plans, reinforces the populist case for his economic agenda, arguing the proposal is "on the side of working families and seniors" and that it would be paid for by "making the wealthy pay the taxes that they owe."

Biden acknowledged in his remarks that skepticism remained about whether his party will be able to come together and pass even a pared-down version of his agenda.

“I think we’re going to surprise them,” he said. “Because I think people are beginning to figure out what is at stake.”