Biden meetings don’t stabilize Democrats’ economic agenda

Leaders insist Biden's economic program is on schedule, but no path forward is in sight

President Joe Biden met with three groups of lawmakers on Wednesday to try to find a path forward for his economic agenda. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden met with three groups of lawmakers on Wednesday to try to find a path forward for his economic agenda. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Posted September 23, 2021 at 7:00am

President Joe Biden held a series of meetings Wednesday with key Democratic lawmakers in an effort to get his economic agenda back on track, but the sessions with leadership, moderates and progressives produced no signs of a major breakthrough.

Most crucially, the president didn't resolve the immediate issue dividing Democrats — the timing of passing the first of the two pieces of his economic agenda.

A solution to the standoff would need to occur before Monday, when the House is scheduled to consider that first piece — a Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill containing $550 billion in new spending on roads, bridges, transit, broadband and water infrastructure.

Progressives have threatened to vote down the infrastructure bill because they don’t want to send it to Biden until both chambers also pass the second piece — a sweeping social spending and tax bill that could provide as much as $3.5 trillion in additional new spending. Democrats are planning to pass that measure without Republican help through the budget reconciliation process. That means they can’t afford a single party defection in the Senate or more than three in the House.

House moderates secured a deal with Speaker Nancy Pelosi last month to bring the infrastructure bill to the floor on Sept. 27. But progressives say that violates a previous agreement they made with Pelosi, the Senate and the White House to ensure that the infrastructure bill is not sent to Biden’s desk before the reconciliation package passes both chambers.

Both sides have been clamoring for Biden to step in and settle the dispute, but the president did not appear to take a definitive position during his three back-to-back meetings at the White House. Instead, he seemed to listen to the different perspectives, ask for additional information and promise to have additional discussions on the path forward, according to attendees.

‘Almost done’?

Biden’s first meeting was with Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer. The second was with a bicameral group of 11 moderate Democrats, and the third was with a bicameral group of 10 progressives.

Shumer told reporters after the leadership meeting that the economic agenda is “moving along,” while Pelosi declared it “on schedule.”

“We’re calm and everybody’s good, and our work’s almost done. We’re in good shape,” she said.

But tensions between the moderate and progressive factions did not appear to calm after their meetings with Biden. And the rank-and-file members said the work, at least on the reconciliation package, is not almost done.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said in a statement that she told the president the same thing she told Pelosi on Tuesday and has said for weeks: “Progressives will vote for both bills because we proudly support the President’s entire [economic agenda], but that a majority of our 96-member caucus will only vote for the small infrastructure bill after the [larger bill] passes.”

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., the leader of the House moderate group pushing the infrastructure vote, said in a statement that “everyone in the room agreed” on the need to pass the infrastructure bill Monday. They also agreed they “separately” want to pass a reconciliation package “and that we can get there,” he said.

“My expectation is that we will have the infrastructure vote on Monday. I didn’t hear anything that indicated otherwise,” moderate Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., told reporters.

But in the following meeting, progressives communicated to Biden that they view the Sept. 27 date as “arbitrary” and pushed for a delay on the infrastructure vote to allow more time to complete the reconciliation package.

“We don’t even have scores, and we still have differences of opinion and the like,” Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said. “And the president heard us out … and he’s indicated that he would talk to Sen. Schumer and Speaker Pelosi and think about it.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who was in the earlier moderates’ meeting, said he thinks Biden was trying to help lawmakers reach agreement on the topline parameters of the reconciliation package before the Monday infrastructure vote. Tester said Biden didn’t directly call for such an agreement, but if one were reached, it “potentially could” resolve the standoff.

“It’s going to take some time to sell anything,” Tester said. “My response was, we got a weekend. ... We can get this done if people want to roll up their sleeves and get it done.”

Moderate requests

Most lawmakers declined to say much to reporters after meeting with Biden. The few who did get into details suggested that the sessions produced more questions than answers about how the party plans to come together to pass the reconciliation bill with narrow House and Senate majorities.

Murphy said the takeaway from the moderates’ meeting was that there’s a lot more work to be done on the reconciliation bill for it to be something that can pass both chambers.

“The size and scope of the bill, in terms of both its spending and tax provisions, will need to be more precisely targeted,” she said.

The moderates, who mostly object to the $3.5 trillion spending topline that progressives, congressional leaders and the White House agreed to earlier this summer, said they did not settle on an alternative figure.

Biden said, “Find a number you're comfortable with, or base it on and what you believe are the needs that we still have and how we deliver to the American people,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va. “So he was very straightforward in what he asked us to do.”

Progressives in their meeting reiterated that they’ve already compromised on the topline, down from $6 trillion to $3.5 trillion, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., said. Their meeting did not get granular on the issues; it was “more of a strategy meeting,” he said.

“We’re the ones that have the president’s back right now, and I think he knows that,” Pocan said.

But moderates are looking to narrow the bill. Murphy suggested that her “strong preference” was for focusing on a few critical issues, such as climate change, paid leave, child care and health care.

“My preference is to fully fund and expand existing programs that we know work, rather than to build programs from scratch,” Murphy said, noting that she’s “open to some new programs,” like on paid leave and climate change, that serve a need not met by existing government programs.

Murphy also said she supports expansions to the 2010 health care law rather than creating new programs in Medicare — a direct shot at a progressive priority to provide new Medicare benefits for dental, vision and hearing. Those new benefits could be revisited later in another bill, she said.

“We cannot afford to do it all,” Murphy said.

Unresolved issues

Several of the unresolved issues on the reconciliation package were brought up during both moderates’ and progressives’ meetings, but it wasn’t clear that any moved closer to a resolution.

Manchin said he still has “big problems” with energy and climate proposals transitioning too quickly away from fossil fuels, but he didn’t get into details.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who was in the moderate meeting, said she raised concerns to Biden about ensuring that family farms are not impacted by any tax increases. The Finance Committee is still weighing whether to tax wealthy individuals’ inheritances when assets like property and stock are passed down at death. Many moderate Democrats fear that changes to the “stepped-up” basis provision that allows most inheritances to escape taxation would hit family farms.

In the progressives’ meeting, Wyden said he brought up several issues under the Finance panel’s jurisdiction that still need to be worked out with the House Ways and Means Committee. Those include clean energy tax provisions, tax increases on wealthy individuals and prescription drug prices.

Wyden did not indicate the path forward to resolving those issues, other than to say his plan on prescription drugs is to work from the bipartisan proposal he and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, released last Congress.

That proposal “really has a lot of teeth,” he said. “If pharmaceutical companies raise their prices more than inflation, they face penalties. So we'll continue with that.”

Jessica Wehrman and Laura Weiss contributed to this report.