WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden pledged Friday at the Capitol to “get it done” as Democrats strained to rescue a scaled-back version of his $3.5 trillion government-overhaul plan and salvage a related public works bill after days of frantic negotiations.
But it's not getting done right now.
Biden huddled with House Democrats on their home ground in a private meeting that was part instructional, part morale booster for the tattered caucus of lawmakers, telling them he wanted both bills passed regardless of the time it takes. He discussed a compromise topline of $1.9 trillion to more than $2 trillion for his bigger vision, according to lawmakers in the room.
But it was clear they are all now in it for the long haul as the White House and its allies in Congress prepared for protracted negotiations.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s six minutes, six days or six weeks — we’re going to get it done,” Biden declared to reporters as he left his late-afternoon meeting at the Capitol.
It's a pivotal time for both president and party, as Biden's approval ratings have dropped and Democrats are restless, eager to deliver on his signature campaign promise of rebuilding the country. His ideas go beyond roads-and-bridges infrastructure to delivering dental, vision and hearing care for seniors, free pre-kindergarten for youngsters, major efforts to tackle climate change and other investments that would touch countless American lives.
Biden's sudden excursion to Capitol Hill was aimed at giving the legislation a needed boost toward the finish line. Holdout Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia had sunk hopes for a swift compromise on a framework when he refused to budge late Thursday on his demands for a smaller overall package, around $1.5 trillion, despite hours of shuttle diplomacy with White House aides.
Without a broader deal, prospects for a Friday vote on the companion public works bill stalled out, progressives refusing to lend their votes until senators reach agreement. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a late-evening letter to colleagues that “more time is needed” as they shape the broader package.
Instead the House passed a 30-day stopgap measure to keep transportation programs running during the stalemate, essentially setting a new deadline for talks, Oct. 31. The Senate was set to follow with a vote Saturday, to halt the furloughs of more than 3,500 federal transportation workers, a byproduct of the political impasse.
With Republicans solidly opposed to Biden's sweeping vision, the president and his party are reaching for a giant legislative accomplishment on their own — all to be paid for by rewriting federal balance sheets with tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy, those earning more than $400,000 a year.
As action ground to a halt Friday in Congress, Biden appeared to offer no particular new legislative strategy. Keeping her promise to centrists, Pelosi had insisted there would be a “vote today” on the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that is popular but is snared in the debate over Biden's broader measure.
With Democratic progressives refusing to give their support for that slimmer roads-and-bridges bill unless advances are made on the president's big bill, Pelosi — with an oh-so-slim House majority — was unwilling to call for a vote.
Biden, by insisting that both bills pass, gave a nod to the progressives' strategy, while floating the lower numbers meant acknowledging the compromise with centrists to come.
"He was really clear that we need to get both bills done," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Attention returned to Manchin and to some extent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, two centrist Democrats who helped steer the $1 trillion public works bill to Senate passage but have concerns that Biden’s overall bill is too big. The two senators have infuriated colleagues with their close-to-the vest negotiations that could tank Biden’s effort — and their own campaign promises.
After hours of negotiations that stretched near midnight Thursday, Manchin said he could not yet compromise beyond his $1.5 trillion offer.
Biden, a former six-term senator making his first in-person visit to a House Democratic caucus, told the lawmakers Friday that "I know a little bit about the legislative process,” according to a person familiar with the private remarks and granted anonymity to discuss them. Even a smaller bill can make historic investments in such areas as childcare, daycare and clean energy, he said.
Biden also relayed a story that seemed to mark the moment.
The president told them that when his White House office was renovated, it was hung with pictures of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, presidents who led a “deeply divided country and the biggest economic transformation — and that’s just the kind of moment we’re in,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I.
The White House said the president plans to travel next week to other cities to make his case that his historic measures would help the American people.
Biden's bigger proposal is a years-in-the-making collection of Democratic priorities with an ultimate price tag he says is zero, because the tax revenue would cover the spending costs — higher rates on businesses earning more than $5 million a year, and individuals earning more than $400,000 a year, or $450,000 for couples.
Tensions spiked late Wednesday when Manchin sent out a fiery statement, decrying the broad spending as “fiscal insanity.”
It's not just Manchin's demands to reduce the overall size, but the conditions he is insisting on that are riling his more liberal colleagues. For example, he wants to ensure the aid goes only to lower-income people, rather than broader swaths of Americans. And he's resisting some of the bolder efforts to tackle climate change.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., another progressive leader, shot back: “Trying to kill your party’s agenda is insanity,” she said.
The total legislative effort is testing not just Biden, but Pelosi and some of the leading figures in the Democratic Party whose legacies will be shaped by whether they succeed or fail.
“We’ve been fighting for transformative legislation as all of you know; these discussions have gone on for month after month after month,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the chairman of the Budget Committee and a leading progressive lawmaker. “This is not a baseball game. This is the most significant piece of legislation in 70 years.”
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Jonathan Lemire, Kevin Freking, Brian Slodysko and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.