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WASHINGTON – President Biden huddled with Democrats in Congress on Wednesday to try to break a potentially devastating multi-trillion dollar impasse on his domestic agenda, struggling to keep party divisions over an ambitious social safety net bill and bridging a major infrastructure move as Congress embarked on a fiscal disaster.
The Democrats on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are nearing a pivotal moment in their quest to impose a huge new policy, as an escalating battle between the progressive and moderate wings – and a host of other divisions within the party – threatens to diminish their chances of doing so to do while keeping control in Washington.
At the same time, even the most basic functions of Congress – preventing the government from closing next week and failing to pay its debts at some point in the next month – are in jeopardy as Republicans refuse to support laws that fund both the government and the government the statutory ceiling would increase over federal borrowing.
The challenges unfold against the background of distrust and strife within the democratic ranks. The moderates urge swift action on the $ 1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill; Progressives are first calling for approval of a sweeping $ 3.5 trillion domestic policy plan, including massive new investments in climate, education, health and social programs.
Without consensus on both, the Democrats, who have tiny majorities in the House and Senate, won’t have enough votes to send both of them to Mr Biden’s desk. This prospect has alarmed the top echelons of the party.
On Wednesday, John D. Podesta, who held key roles in the White House under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, sent a memo to every Capitol Hill Democrat begging them to undertake the $ 3.5 trillion plan for their own sake Compromise, warning that doing anything else would risk sinking both bills and costing party control in Congress in next year’s midterm elections.
“You either get both bills or neither – and the prospect of neither is unscrupulous,” he wrote. “It would signal a complete and utter failure of our democratic duty and a ruthless renunciation of our responsibility. It would define the story of our generation and show that when our time came, we failed for Americans both now and in the years to come. “
The long day of Mr Biden’s meetings with lawmakers reflected the realization that “the president needs deeper engagement” to bring Democrats together, said Jen Psaki, White House press secretary.
The President, she added, “sees his role as being to unite and work to bring people together on a common agreement and on a way forward”.
This path is extremely murky as the Democrats are heading for a tangle of fiscal and political deadlines with no discernible public strategy, but party leaders remained publicly confident on Wednesday.
“We’re on schedule – that’s all I’m going to say,” spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi told reporters after meeting with Mr Biden for more than an hour. “We are calm and everyone is good and our job is almost done.”
But the Democrats admitted the process was painful.
“When you have 50 votes and none to lose, and you have three left in the House of Representatives, there’s a lot of give and take – that’s just the way it is,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermonter who chairs the Committee on Budgets. “It’s difficult. But I think we’ll be fine at the end of the day.”
The core of the stalemate is the leadership’s promise to a group of moderate Democrats that the House of Representatives will adopt the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the Senate by Monday. The Liberal House Democrats say they will oppose the move until their priority laws are cleared by both the House and Senate.
These Democrats say the Infrastructure Bill, which left out most of their top priorities, including key anti-climate change provisions, cannot be separated from the $ 3.5 trillion package that includes many of these elements, such as the one Switch to electricity. In addition to the climate component, the social policy measure would, among other things, expand childcare and child tax breaks, expand the free pre-kindergarten and adult education center, and strengthen Medicare.
But key centrists in the Senate have struggled against this package, which the Democrats want to enforce with an accelerated budget process known as reconciliation that protects it from a filibuster. Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona both voted to start work on a $ 3.5 trillion measure, but have since warned that they will not support the spending that heavily .
On Wednesday, Mr Biden urged objectors to state exactly what they would support so that Democrats could unite behind a plan that could be passed.
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“Find a number that you are satisfied with based on what you think we still need and how we supply the American people,” said Mr. Manchin, describing the president’s request. “He was very direct in what he asked of us.”
Internal disputes escalate as Congress faces urgent deadlines. Without action by Congress, federal funding will expire at 12:01 p.m. on Friday and the government will be closed. And sometime in October, the Treasury Department will hit its legal credit limit, forcing it to stop some payments to international creditors, social security beneficiaries and government contractors.
In the midst of these looming crises, Republican leaders practically mock the Democrats and refuse to support laws that combine raising the debt ceiling and a stopgap measure to spending.
“Don’t play Russian roulette with the economy; raise and raise the debt ceiling, “Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, said Wednesday, despite vowing not to give the Democrats a single Republican vote.
And House Republicans on Wednesday called on their grassroots members to oppose the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which they said was “inextricably linked to the reconciliation package.”
“Republicans should not help with this destructive process,” warned the office of Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, Republican No. 2, in a statement calling for “no” votes.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of former finance ministers wrote to congressional leaders from both parties expressing a “deep sense of urgency” to raise the debt ceiling. Federal Reserve chairman Jerome H. Powell made a similar statement at a press conference.
“Nobody should assume that the Fed or anyone else can fully protect the markets and the economy unless we make sure we pay these debts when they come due,” he said.
In addition, the Democrats must find a way to save Mr Biden’s agenda. They had hoped to emerge from Wednesday’s meeting with public pledges from key moderates, including Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema, to support a law of reconciliation, but by evening they still had no such statement from the two senators.
Biden offered “Covid-safe” individually wrapped chocolate chip cookies with the President’s seal and spent much of the day hosting groups of lawmakers in the Oval Office on Wednesday, starting with Ms. Pelosi and New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader .
He met with nearly two dozen senators and MPs from across his party’s ideological spectrum, including liberal leaders and some of the moderates who played key roles in negotiating the infrastructure bill.
White House officials said Mr. Biden and his team would hold follow-up meetings starting Thursday.
By Monday, leaders hope to reach an agreement on an overall price for the reconciliation move that is likely to fall below the $ 3.5 trillion budget plan, and an ironclad deal on some key provisions included in the final package must be.
Neither side has moved so far. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, accused more conservative Democrats of making “impulsive and arbitrary demands” while setting unnecessary deadlines such as the infrastructure vote on Monday.
“The package, investments, and programs that we have there are pretty much non-negotiable. That’s why we are at this impasse, “she said, adding,” We are in a moment and a test of political will. “
Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a moderate Florida woman, said it would be “really disappointing and embarrassing” if the infrastructure bill were to fail against opposition from progressives.
After her meeting with Mr Biden, Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said “there is not much trust” among Democrats and reiterated that Liberals would keep their promise to vote against the Democratic infrastructure measure on Monday.
But the list of moderate objections is long and varied. Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader wants a bill that spends less than $ 1 trillion over 10 years. Hawaii Representative Ed Case has stated that if made permanent, he will not accept the phasing in or phasing out of programs and tax measures to hide their true costs, Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call recently reported. New York MP Kathleen Rice opposes the persistent approach of lowering prescription drug prices.
And the disputes go beyond ideological differences. New York MP Tom Suozzi says he will not vote for a version that does not essentially reintroduce state and local tax withholding, a crucial issue for high-tax countries. North Carolina MP Alma Adams says she will oppose the bill unless it includes tens of billions of dollars more for historically black colleges and institutions that serve minorities.
Democrats across the ideological spectrum said it was a huge task to forge consensus.
“We have a hectic few days ahead of us,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a moderate man from New Jersey, after emerging from his negotiating session with Mr. Biden and other lawmakers.
Catie Edmondson and Jonathan Martin contributed to the coverage.