President Joe Biden bumbled his way through a trip to Michigan, at times getting jeered to the uncensored version of the now familiar “Let’s go Brandon” salute,” making a lewd gaffe involving Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and even appearing to forget entirely why he went there.
Although the purpose of Biden’s trip was ostensibly to sell his multi-trillion-dollar spending packages to the American people, one of the first things Biden did was to lower the opening bid.
“I want to make sure that we have a package that everyone can agree on,” Biden told reporters Tuesday in Howell, Michigan, where he went to try building public support for his plan. “It’s not going to be $3.5 trillion. It’s going to be less than that.”
Back in Washington, congressional Democrats struggled to edge closer to agreement Tuesday on how sharply to cut back his ambitious social spending plan, even as the president tried making a public case that the package will help keep the nation from losing its “edge” in global competitiveness.
But Biden’s distracting gaffes and growing disapproval in the Rust Belt overshadowed the hollow words emanating from his teleprompter, and showed that the biggest threat to the radical Leftist agenda that he has embraced may be the president losing his own “edge.”
He went to Michigan to promote the proposal for expanded safety net, health and environmental programs, but after his speech he acknowledged the inevitable as Democrats focus on a now-$2 trillion top-line for the package to win support.
Biden and congressional Democrats’ push for a $3.5 trillion package of social and environmental initiatives has reached a turning point, with the president repeatedly conceding that the measure will be considerably smaller and pivotal lawmakers flashing potential signs of flexibility.
In virtual meetings Monday and Tuesday with small groups of House Democrats, Biden said he reluctantly expected the legislation’s final version to weigh in between $1.9 trillion and $2.3 trillion, a Democrat familiar with the sessions said Tuesday.
He told them he didn’t think he could do better than that, the person said, reflecting demands from some of the party’s more conservative lawmakers.
Biden used those same figures during a Friday meeting in the Capitol with nearly all House Democrats, according to that person and a second Democrat familiar with the gathering. Both Democrats would describe the meetings only on condition of anonymity.
There has been no agreement on a final figure, and plenty of other unanswered questions—plus the possibility of failure—remain.
Crucial unresolved matters include how to get virtually every Democrat in Congress to vote for a measure they’ve spent months fighting over and that Republicans will solidly oppose, and whether the shrunken price tag would be reached by dropping some proposals or by keeping most but at lower cost or shorter duration.
But by repeatedly conceding that the crown jewel of his own domestic agenda will have to shrink and providing a range for its cost, Biden is trying to push his party beyond months of stalemate and refocus bargainers on nailing down needed policy and fiscal decisions.
Asked how he would trim $1 trillion from his initial plan, Biden said, “My objective is to get everything that I campaigned on passed.” He added, “It won’t all happen at once.” That seemed to suggest that some initiatives in the bill might not begin right away or might last only temporarily to save money.
Asked if there would be “means testing,” or limits on the incomes of people who would qualify for initiatives, the president said, “Sure.” Some moderates have wanted to impose such limits on some programs.
Already relying on a procedural gimmick—budget reconciliation—to avoid bipartisan compromise in the evenly split Senate, Democratic leaders will need every vote from their own Senate caucus and all but three in the House for victory.
However, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have remained steadfast on curbing the bill’s cost. Manchin has insisted on holding the package to $1.5 trillion and has said he wants to means test some programs.
In one indication of possible give-and-take, Manchin on Tuesday said, “I’m not ruling anything out,” when asked if he would definitely oppose a price tag in Biden’s range. Leftists consider Manchin’s demand for a ceiling of $1.5 trillion unacceptable, though an aide said the senator still wants the lower number.
In addition, far-left Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said during Monday’s virtual meeting with Biden that she wanted $2.5 trillion to $2.9 trillion, The Washington Post reported Tuesday. Jayapal leads the nearly 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus.
As Democrats make painful decisions about scaling down the measure, they are battling over whether to finance as many initiatives as possible but for less than 10 years, or to pick out top priorities and fund them robustly.
Big proposed increases in housing may be cut. Expensive proposed Medicare dental benefits might have to be scaled back. And a proposed extension of a more generous children’s tax credit might be temporary, effectively daring a future Congress to refuse to extend them.
That Medicare expansion, which also includes new coverage for hearing and vision, is competing for money against other proposals to expand Medicaid coverage and to extend bigger tax credits for people buying health insurance under President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Biden’s recalibration of his plan’s cost has been accompanied by stepped up talks involving the White House, congressional leaders and lawmakers.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., met late Monday in the Capitol with White House officials including senior adviser Brian Deese and Susan Rice, who heads Biden’s Domestic Policy Council. Last week, Deese and Rice were among White House aides who met Thursday night with Manchin and Sinema in the Capitol.
Top Democrats are now hoping to craft an agreement they can push through Congress by Oct. 31, along with a companion $1 trillion measure financing highway, internet and other infrastructure projects.
The leaders had to abandon long shot hopes of passing those measures last week after divisions between progressives and moderates left them short of votes.
Their divisions remained despite Biden’s desperate visit with House Democrats on Friday in an effort to unify his party. That same day, Pelosi scrapped a planned vote on the Senate-approved infrastructure bill, which is coveted by moderates but which progressives are holding hostage to force them to back the social and environment measure.
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press