Joe Biden Backs Compromise to Win a Vast Social Agenda

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Joe Biden Backs Compromise to Win a Vast Social Agenda

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As he tries to steer his party toward a vast, once-in-a-generation investment in social programs, President Biden is paring back his ambitions for clean energy, access to college and help for families.

The president proposed abandoning his signature campaign promise of two years of free community college, according to people who attended White House meetings with Democratic lawmakers and others who had been briefed on them. He conceded that negotiators would dump a clean electricity program spurned by Senate centrists. He raised the idea of limiting an extension of payments to families with children to one year. And he said the length of federal paid leave could shrink.

Joe Biden Backs Compromise to Win a Vast Social Agenda

In response to steadfast opposition from Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, Mr. Biden’s team is now also wrestling with how to pay for trillions of dollars in spending without relying on increases in the corporate or individual income tax rates.

Pursuing a legacy-making achievement, Mr. Biden has been a mediator, a listener and at times an exasperated negotiator, according to people familiar with the dozens of closed-door discussions, Zoom meetings and many late-night telephone calls with Democratic lawmakers.

For the presidentthe man in the middlethe goal is to find a way to reach a deal, even if that feels like betrayal and broken promises to some on both sides.

In meetings with progressives, he has coaxed them away from expansive programs with sky-high price tags. With moderates, he has acknowledged their concerns about an overreaching government even as he has nudged them toward supporting trillions of dollars in new spending and tax cuts. And in public, he has pushed his original agenda while conceding it will be pared back.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the Democratic leader of House progressives, described the discussions as “conversational,” but said the president was moving to bring the debate to an end.

He is the closer, he is the convincer, the mediator in chief,” she said.

But mostly, he has been the compromiser.

Since taking office, Mr. Biden has pitched trillions of dollars in government spending designed to reshape the American middle class, expand free education, improve support for children and the elderly, and confront climate change.

But he suggested to lawmakers on Tuesday that the price tag for his agenda could drop by 50 percent, to $1.75 trillion. And speaking at the Electric City Trolley Museum in Scranton, Pa., on Wednesday afternoon, he tacitly acknowledged how far his ambitions have been scaled back.

We’re going to make investments in education beyond high school that includes increasing Pell Grants,” he told the audience in the town where he grew up. He did not mention free community college.

After months of plodding discussions, there is a new sense of urgency and optimism at the White House and among Democrats on Capitol Hill. Drawing on decades of experience as a senator, Mr. Biden has maintained disciplined patience with members of his own party, according to people familiar with the talks. He has not expressed deeply held views on the details or drawn many red lines.

A final framework for the legislation has yet to emerge, even as discussions accelerate. But the negotiations over Mr. Biden’s social policy agenda, known as Build Back Better, are revealing him to be the flexible dealmaker that some hoped for — and others dreaded.

Reaching compromise, even on a pared-back version of Mr. Biden’s agenda, would dramatically increase the federal government’s spending on a wide array of social programs, helping families, college students, middle-class workers and others for decades.

Details of legislation that would spend roughly $2 trillion over 10 years remained in flux on Wednesday, as lawmakers huddled across Capitol Hill to iron out the details of the plan. An agreement on that bill could in turn bring progressives in the House to vote for a separate bill to invest in roads, bridges, broadband, water pipes and other physical infrastructure, which has already cleared the Senate with bipartisan support.

But compromise has its costs, especially for a politician eager to talk about revolutionary change, but perfectly willing to accept incremental progress.

For environmental activists, immigration advocates, proponents of expanded access to college and others, Mr. Biden’s search for middle ground is likely to mean giving up on some of the sweeping proposals they hoped would finally pass in a government controlled by Democrats. That has left many of them angry and frustrated.

Outside the White House on Wednesday, five young climate change activists began a hunger strike to protest what they described as Mr. Biden’s capitulation to demands to back away from ambitious clean energy plans.

“I think we all feel pretty desperate,” said Abby Leedy, 20, who had traveled from Philadelphia.

She said young people, many of whom went door-to-door to help elect Mr. Biden, are now disappointed in him.

A lot of young people worked hard to elect Joe Biden because he did make promises. He said that he would be a climate champion, that if we elected him he would do everything he could to solve the climate crisis,” Ms. Leedy said. “I think what’s happening right now is he’s going back on his climate promises.”

Mr. Biden’s top advisers are betting that the anger and frustration felt by those who do not get everything they want will quickly fade. Aides said they expect Democratic lawmakersprogressives and moderates alike — and activists to embrace the compromise legislation once it passes.

To that end, Mr. Biden has been acting as a cheerleader, a sounding board and, increasingly, a prod for holdout Democrats, spending hours in the Oval Office and its adjoining private dining room, meeting with key lawmakers and cajoling others on the phone.

In his meetings with lawmakers, Mr. Biden has stressed the political peril he and his party face if his agenda falls flat in Congress. He frequently extols the potential benefits to American workers and families, and opinion polls suggest strong nationwide popularity for his spending and tax plans. He has pushed for lawmakers’ support but not threatened to break off talks.

Mr. Biden’s efforts have been hampered, some administration officials concede privately, by his own falling poll numbers, which slumped this summer as the United States suffered another wave of Covid-19 infections and deaths and the administration staged a chaotic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Some Democrats complain that the president’s intense focus on Ms. Sinema and Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, has diverted his attention from the rest of his coalition and made it harder for him to bring progressives on board.

In order to maneuver around unanimous Republican opposition, Democrats are using a fast-track budget process known as reconciliation that shields legislation from a filibuster. But to cobble together a majority for passage with their razor-thin majorities, they must keep all 50 of their senators and nearly every House Democrat united behind a final producta perilous maneuver when priorities are quickly being whittled down.

One of the most fraught unresolved elements of the legislation is how to finance the bill. Mr. Biden did not focus on that in discussions with lawmakers on Tuesday.

While talks remain ongoing in a bid to sway Ms. Sinema, who met privately with White House staff on Wednesday, Democrats are now eyeing another array of finance mechanisms, including increasing the Internal Revenue Service’s ability to collect unpaid taxes, taxing stock buybacks, imposing an income tax on billionaire wealth and increasing the global minimum tax rate as a way to pay for the package.

Democratic leaders met privately on Wednesday with the leaders of the tax-writing committees, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, as well as White House staff.

During his visit to Scranton, Mr. Biden

did not dwell on the size of the social legislation. And he insisted that once approved, the spending will help families raise and educate their children and keep the United States competitive.

For too long, working people in this nation, the middle class in this country, the backbone of the country have been dealt out,” he said. “It’s time to deal them back in.”

Across Capitol Hill on Wednesday, different groups of lawmakersfrom Senate committee leaders to ideological caucuses in the Housewere huddling to negotiate a possible compromise.

Members are in a position where they want to get something donethey understand that you’ve got to get everybody in the tent, because we have very close margins,” Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, told reporters when asked about the smaller spending proposal. “So I think they’ll accommodate that.”

Leaving a private caucus meeting Wednesday morning, some Democrats appeared most concerned about the prospect of limiting the duration of the expanded child tax credit to just one more year. Democrats had hoped to extend the monthly payments through 2024 or 2025.

I think it’s a big mistakeone year extension is a big mistake,” Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut and a champion of the proposal, said Wednesday morning. “And I think it’s not good, not good for the country, what I will do is to continue to pressure for a new framework that’s more enduring for children and for families.”

Joe Biden leans on Scranton. In D.C., Park Avenue may be winning

It was just before dusk. And standing in front of a dated brick building, four historic trolley cars and a billboard emblazoned with an American flag and the words “Build Back Better,” President Joe Biden was once more trying to conjure up the working class populism that had brought him from this old coal town to the halls of the White House.

“Just do your fair share,” he implored the crowd in attendance, about 100 or so people who had come to see the Scranton boy who had made it to the Oval Office and back.

Biden was talking, at that moment, about the “Park Avenue” crowd, which is what he’s come to call a strata of America; big corporations, multi-millionaires and billionaires who he complained had long skirted tax rules. “For too long, the working class of our country has been dealt out, it’s time to deal them back in again,” he said.

For years, he has been making this case, crafting a public persona as a pugilist for the American working class. But in recent months, the messaging has taken on elevated importance. His presidency rests on passing a massive social spending and climate bill through Congress in the next few weeks or months. And in order to do that, he’s sold it as a generational chance to create economic equity.

Scranton was an obvious backdrop, tailor-made to provoke a sense of working class America. Biden had crafted his 2020 presidential campaign around these ideas too, a Robinhood-themed agenda, minus the actual thievery. It was Scranton vs. Park Avenue—the place of his birth held up as the very symbol of the plight of the average family against the extravagances of the wealthy.

But scripts like this aren’t always without complications. And what Biden has found out is that populism may sell electorally but it doesn’t always translate into legislative language.

Back in Washington on Wednesday, reports emerged that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) was balking at the president’s proposal to pay for his agenda by raising tax rates on the wealthy and corporations. Democrats insisted that they had other ideas for revenue. But, for the time being, chalk one up for Park Avenue.

Biden showed no signs of concern as he spoke. His party is still inching toward a deal on a multi-trillion Build Back Better domestic spending plan that could end up funding everything from parental leave to child and elderly care.

But the path to this point has taken an obvious toll. Sinema’s opposition to corporate and income tax hikes on high earners, threatens one of the party’s more attractive lines of messaging — that the rich need to finally pay their fair share. And, in the Capitol, Democrats have begun to concede that all the messiness of negotiations has hurt their standing with the public. When reporters asked Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) about a recent poll showing few Americans knew what was contained in the Build Back Better plan, the majority whip blamed his own party.

“I don’t doubt that one bit, and I think [it’s] our fault. We oversold it and underperformed for too long,” Durbin told reporters Wednesday. “Now we get a chance to close it the right way, hopefully.”

On Wednesday, Biden tried to get a little of that momentum back. He has largely operated in private in recent weeks, giving just five economic-themed speeches since Labor Day. But back in Scranton, he spun tales of his youth, how his relatives congregated around tables after meals, dispensing worldly advice to maintain his courage, loyalty and dignity — all eventually built into his constitution. He retold stories of his dad losing his job and his health insurance, then of the death of his first wife and daughter, and how he worked as a single dad for years.

“I believe that home is where your character is etched,” he said.

Shane Cawley, a fourth generation iron worker and union member who introduced Biden to the crowd, gave a boost to Biden’s domestic spending plan, pointing to added assistance for child care and elder care as vital to his family in Pennsylvania.

“We work hard for every dollar that we earn and some days it feels like the odds are stacked against us,” Cawley said, before introducing Biden.

Biden’s last trip to Scranton had been on Election Day, when he stopped at his childhood home and signed a wall there. “From this house to the White House with the grace of God,” he wrote.

Biden did indeed make it to the presidency, as he was reminded of on the drive to Wednesday’s speech. Just weeks earlier, new signage had gone up along Interstate 81 designating the Central Scranton Expressway as President Biden Expressway. Another roadway in town was renamed Biden Street just before his visit.

Scranton transformed Biden. The question now is how far beyond street signs he can transform Scranton.

 

“I think the Scranton visit brings back the conversation to where Biden and the average American sees it — are we going to fix the things we need to fix in this county?” said Greg Schultz, Biden’s former campaign manager. “So much of the recent debate has been about the legislative process and policy maneuvering — these are important but at the end of the day people want their government to understand their problems and try to make them a little better. Biden returning home helps bring him and the issues back to a home base.”