Biden closes in on deal with Manchin, Sinema as liberals wince

Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema left a two-hour meeting with White House officials seemingly on the verge of an agreement to advance President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda — depending on whether their fellow Democrats sign on.

Though a breakthrough would deliver Democrats a major momentum boost after months of dragging debate, Manchin underscored that the rest of his 50-member caucus would need to sign off. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), for one, has objected to the possible exclusion of his Medicare expansion proposal from a deal.

“It’s really up to the rest of the caucus,” Manchin said after the meeting. “Everyone has to participate.”

White House aides’ lengthy meeting between the moderates from West Virginia and Arizona followed a sitdown with Biden on Tuesday evening to hash out remaining obstacles to enacting the party’s once-lofty social spending vision. It’s far from clear that what passes muster with Manchin and Sinema can alleviate House progressives’ resistance to taking up the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill this week absent a more concrete accord.

Manchin said Democrats could “absolutely” clinch a deal Wednesday and that his hope is to reach a rough framework all Democrats can agree on. He argued that “good faith” negotiations about a forthcoming climate and social spending bill are enough to unstick the Senate’s infrastructure bill. Sinema said she’s “doing great, making progress.”

“The president has made that very clear: He wants to move forward. And we owe it to the president to move forward, take a vote on the infrastructure bill, it’s the only thing we have that’s bipartisan,” Manchin told reporters on Wednesday morning. “He’s working as hard as he possibly can to get a good solid deal. He believes 100 percent of nothing is nothing.”

Once pegged at $3.5 trillion, the bill’s price tag is now below $2 trillion, with Democrats privately holding out hope that Manchin will come up from $1.5 trillion to at least $1.75 trillion. Democratic leaders are still pushing for a framework this week as Biden prepares to head overseas. Before leaving Washington, the president is expected to come to the House to pitch Democrats there on an infrastructure vote, provided that they clinch a deal on the social spending package in time.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that there could be some flexibility on what time on Thursday the president leaves for Europe, but that it should not be expected that he would delay his trip.

The sudden urgency could be crucial to moving the bipartisan infrastructure bill to Biden’s desk before next week’s New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections. Yet it will also require buy-in from skeptical progressives, who are seeing their priorities increasingly shrunk or left behind.

“The president’s been very clear. They’ll go over to the House, and he’ll basically explain to the House: ‘I have a framework, but there’s still an awful lot of work to be done.’ And we’re going to have something happening. You have to trust the president’s giving everything he has to make this. He’s trying to meet everybody halfway,” Manchin said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi told House Democrats on Wednesday morning that she would update her members within hours on talks between Biden, Sinema and Manchin, but that her party is “in pretty good shape.” Even so, Pelosi continues to face an intense push-pull from liberals — who want to see a full social spending bill before voting on the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure deal — and moderates who want to get the infrastructure vote finally set, as soon as possible.

“It’s lamb eat lamb. There is no bad decision. We have to choose,” Pelosi told her members, according to a source familiar with her remarks. Senate Democrats say it’s highly unlikely bill text will be totally finalized this week, however.

Progressives have also blanched at Sinema’s efforts to avoid raising tax rates and Manchin’s move to cut the bill’s top line. Those moves have prompted a deal on a corporate minimum tax and tenuous negotiations on a billionaires tax, as well as potential cuts to plans for Medicare expansion, Medicaid expansion and paid leave. Efforts to lower drug prices through Medicare negotiations are headed toward a more limited approach, Democrats said.

By midday Wednesday, the billionaire tax was out of the mix, according to multiple sources familiar with the talks. Manchin said the tax on billionaire’s assets is “convoluted” and instead pitched a “patriotic” 15 percent tax on wealthy people. He said he did not want to target a certain class of people through the tax code.

His comments complicated negotiations, some Democrats said.

“I continue to be optimistic that on the spending side, there are pathways toward closing the remaining gaps,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). “But I recognize that Sen. Manchin’s just made a comment that made some of the revenue side” more complex, he added. “There are several options in terms of revenue that could be promising.”

What’s more, Manchin continued to throw cold water on health care and paid leave proposals, citing the debt and deficit as reason enough to hold the line on creating new spending programs. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said that “it’s not looking good” for paid leave.

“I am truly, absolutely concerned about the deficit of our country. almost $29 trillion. I’m concerned about the insolvency of the trust funds. In good conscience, I have a hard time increasing, basically, benefits,” Manchin said. “I’ve been very clear. To expand social programs, when you have trust funds that aren’t solvent … can’t explain that. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Democrats are more confident about climate subsidies and universal pre-K making it into in the package, along with an extension of the Child Tax Credit. But it all comes down to where Manchin and Sinema fall — and whether the rest of the party’s thin majorities go along with Biden’s dealmaking. Chairmen of the Senate’s climate-related committees will meet again on Wednesday afternoon, according to Democratic sources.

Passing the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill will require a furious whipping operation in the House, where many progressives are still demanding more than just a framework from Biden on the safety net plan. Some want to see a Senate vote on the bill, an implausible scenario. But senior Democrats privately hope they can win over enough liberals with a deal that would allow them to pass the bill.

In a private caucus meeting Wednesday, Pelosi insisted the two bills would not have to be voted on at the same time, despite calls from the left flank to do so.

“I don’t want to get any impression that there was any promise these two would go together. At least I wasn’t part of that,” Pelosi said, according to Democrats in the room.

But Pelosi’s comments now run counter to her stance earlier this year when she insisted the House wouldn’t vote on the infrastructure bill “until the Senate passes the bipartisan bill and a reconciliation bill.” And just last month, Pelosi blew past a promise she’d made to moderates to vote on the infrastructure bill by Sept. 27 after it became clear progressives wouldn’t support the plan.

The shifting strategy illustrates how nimble Democratic leaders have had to be in recent months as they try to keep a delicate coalition of moderates and progressives together on both key planks of Biden’s domestic agenda — the $550 billion infrastructure bill and the much larger social spending package.

Without action on infrastructure, both chambers would need to quickly clear a stopgap for federal highway programs, which expire on Oct. 31.

Caitlin Emma contributed to this report.

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