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Biden enters the complicated and fluid end game for his agenda as scaled back proposal takes shape


By Phil Mattingly and Lauren Fox, CNN

Welcome to the end game.

President Joe Biden’s decision to lay out the details of a significantly scaled back — and yet still sweeping in scale — roughly $1.9 trillion economic and climate package in a private meeting with nine progressive House Democrats was strategic, intentional and a signal that the talk of wrapping things up isn’t just talk. There is still significant work to be done and the critical holdouts — Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — still have not signed onto the plan, officials say.

But, in the words of one lawmaker who met with Biden and short-handed the conversation: “We’re not in listen and discuss mode anymore. We’re in time to take action mode.”

The bottom line is that Biden and Democratic leaders engineered a clear pivot toward a resolution through a series of meetings and calls over the course of Tuesday. The next several days will be spent in the effort to agree to a framework on the multi-trillion economic and climate package by week’s end. Deadlines have been set and blown by before. But this one may be different. In the words of one official, “We want it to stick, we need it to stick.”

What to watch Wednesday

House Democrats will hold a caucus meeting as the push to reach a framework agreement intensifies.

President Joe Biden will travel to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to pitch his proposal to the public.

What to watch for later this week

Nothing is locked into place yet and everything remains fluid, but if progress continues to be made, a return visit to the Capitol by Biden is definitely on the table, multiple sources tell CNN.

The details

Here’s what Biden laid out in the meetings, according to what multiple sources have passed along, with the caveat that the package remains very much subject to negotiation and that Biden’s topline rundown wasn’t, in the words of one official “a full laundry list” of what will be included.

  • Universal pre-kindergarten
  • Extension of the child tax credit for one year, with the possibility of two depending on how talks shake out (Democrats originally proposed extending it through 2025)
  • Paid leave with a shorter duration of four weeks, triggered at $100,000 (Democrats originally proposed 12 weeks)
  • Childcare and home care are included in the proposal, but at a reduced overall spending level — with home care likely less than $250 billion (Democrats originally proposed $400 billion)
  • Roughly $150-200 billion for housing
  • Tuition-free community college is dropped entirely, though there are funds for scholarships and an expansion of Pell grants proposed
  • Medicare expansion to include vision and hearing, with a possible “pilot” program to explore the expansion of dental
  • Affordable Care Act funding to finance subsidies for three years, at roughly $180 billion
  • Climate remains the most fluid, with an understanding that the long-planned $300 billion in tax credits and incentives is in the proposal and intense negotiations to see what else can be included
  • The Clean Electricity Power Program is out, as CNN has reported. One of, if not the, most important negotiations ahead are how to try and address emissions without CEPP, which fell out due to Manchin’s opposition.
  • State and local tax deduction — this appears extremely fluid at the moment, yet it’s absolutely critical for Democrats to have the votes to move forward, even though most progressives and the White House are in theory opposed to the idea of lifting or revising the cap. It’s clear, due to its cost, it will be more modest than the northeastern Democrats — including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York — had hoped, but the final scope is still fluid.

The big picture

Senate Democrats, in their own two-hour meeting at the Capitol, appeared to emerge with consensus that a framework agreement should be in place by the end of this week. White House officials support that push.

But Biden laid out the timeline in his meeting with progressives and moderates, sources said. He can’t show up to the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow empty handed.

A lawmaker in the meeting called it “the most forceful case I’ve heard him make on the need for an agreement on a specific timeline.”

“He needs something substantial to take to Glasgow, and if we don’t get this done, it’s going to be a huge dent to American credibility. He really believes that American leadership, American prestige, is on the line,” Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, said, noting that message delivered by Biden on Tuesday had made an impact on him.

Biden’s goal is to have a framework agreement on the economic and climate package in hand, which would clear the way for a House vote on the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill before he arrives in Glasgow, according to two sources familiar with the meeting.

Critically, sources tell CNN, he has made the same pitch to Manchin and Sinema. The stakes, in Biden’s view, are clear — and that’s become a, if not the, central part of his push moving now.

The caveats

  • There is no framework agreement until all 50 Democratic senators sign off. That hasn’t happened yet, and to some degree with good reason: The elements Biden laid out to progressives (and later to moderates as well, sources said) are pieces of what would likely make up an agreement.
  • There still is no topline number agreement/ Biden made clear the range was between $1.75 trillion to $1.9 trillion, though he repeatedly referred to it as a “$2 trillion” proposal, one member said.
  • Many of the key elements are still being negotiated for the length and structure — and the idea of only extending the expanded child tax credit for a single year hasn’t gone over smoothly with some key players on the Hill, according to people involved.
  • The climate piece is still very fluid, and exceedingly critical for progressives who are now showing clear willingness to back the slimmed down package.
  • As the outlines move closer to reality, it will become glaringly apparent what priorities aren’t included — or aren’t included as fully as some would like. Each priority has a constituency among Democrats. Every single one of those Democrats has the power to short-circuit any move forward — that’s just a reality of the exceedingly narrow vote margins. That’s something White House officials and Democratic leaders will be keeping a close eye one.
  • Manchin and Sinema haven’t signed off yet. That’s … pretty much the whole ballgame at this point.

The context

There has been significant frustration from Democrats about the combination of being out of the loop on the talks between White House officials and the moderate senators, as well as the lack of concrete action.

That was, as CNN reported Monday, intentional as the White House and congressional leaders spent the last several weeks intensively working to narrow down and reconcile the key concerns and differences.

Sen. Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat who met with Biden as part of the group of moderates, put it best after the meeting: “I think I told one of you nothing’s happened the last 10 days. I think there’s been a lot that’s happened the last 10 days, I just wasn’t aware of it.”

The tonal shift

The most tangible development over the course of Tuesday was the subtle, yet very critical, shift in tone coming from the Democratic members who have held significant sway — or even control — over the state of play in the House. Red lines that had been drawn were blurred. Public spats that spilled into the open played out again behind closed doors.

Yes, the details still need significant work. No, not all members are there yet.

But, there was a recognition that something had to happen and fast before the President leaves for Scotland. It’s a shift from where members were just before the recess, when Pelosi was forced to postpone a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill because factions could not come together. The impending deadline of Glasgow paired with the reality of a midterm election just a year away and the constant barrage of stories about Democratic infighting all coalesced and began chipping away at the resolve of folks who up until this point had demanded they get everything or give nothing at all.

Here’s your sign

For example: Members of the progressive caucus started to say they may not need a full Senate vote on the Build Back Better package before they vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Members in that meeting said that is because the President made it abundantly clear that any bill that he backed and said would have the Senate’s support, would.

“The President said he is prepared to put his credibility on the line on a framework and guarantee that any framework he represents will have the votes, and I trust Joe Biden,” Khanna said.

“If there is more certainty in the process and more certainty in the legislation and commitment, I don’t necessarily need a vote,” Rep. Jimmy Gomez, a California Democrat, said, noting he still needs more certainty than he has now.

Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the progressive leader from Washington, also said that she may not need a vote if she has a real guarantee that moderates won’t back out of voting for a bigger package.

“I have to see what the whole thing is, right, so we just can’t say right now, but we’re open to anything that moves these things along quickly, as long as we’re really confident that it is actually agreed to in total,” she said.

So, where do the moderates stand?

In the last two days, Biden has met in person with Manchin and Sinema, and spoken to both by phone. White House and leadership officials have remained in a fairly real-time set of policy conversations with both.

At the moment, multiple Democratic members that have worked on this larger reconciliation package believe significant progress is being made with Manchin. White House officials share that view. The fact that the senior senator from West Virginia sat with his colleagues for two hours Tuesday in the private lunch wasn’t insignificant. He voiced his views, he listened to others and while some of that may sound basic, it’s an important component of helping colleagues understand just what Manchin will give and what he won’t give on.

A number of Democrats don’t feel the same way about Sinema right now, who has similarly been a roller coaster for White House officials to work with at various points. Among Senate Democrats, there is general confusion about where she stands on a series of issues given the fact that colleagues point out she speaks directly with the White House and the President about her concerns.

While Democrats were hashing out their differences in lunch Tuesday, Sinema wasn’t there. Her office said she was in another meeting discussing the bill with White House officials.

“She’s been difficult,” one Democrat told CNN.

Threading the needle on climate

Manchin’s continued opposition to a series of climate proposals including a carbon tax and the Clean Electricity Performance Program, which pays companies to convert to cleaner sources of power, isn’t the end of including climate in this proposal.

With Manchin’s opposition crystallizing behind the scenes, an effort has been underway to use the tax code as a way to meet the US’s climate goals with Finance Chairman Ron Wyden taking the lead in many of those tax programs.

How that comes together is still not clear and members say the President was clear that this is still a work in progress, but Biden did make his commitment known on the climate front, something that has helped ease concerns for members who have vowed to vote against a reconciliation package if it does not include significant efforts to reduce emissions.

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