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Biden puts ‘closer’ role to the test with his entire agenda on the line


By Kevin Liptak and Phil Mattingly, CNN

President Joe Biden isn’t pitching in Wednesday’s night’s Congressional Baseball Game, where players and spectators alike hold the key to his political fate.

But even off the mound, it is clearer than ever the moment has arrived for Biden to play the closer. His expected presence in the stands at Nationals Stadium is perhaps the clearest indication yet that no opportunity will be spared for the President to pressure Democrats into getting in line behind his ambitious domestic agenda.

Using a combination of soft-touch pragmatism, hard-nosed haggling and “c’mon man” realism, Biden this week is employing a career’s worth of legislative practice to ensure his agenda does not implode under the weight of Democratic infighting and Republican opposition. White House officials and others familiar with the talks insist he is making progress, even if the results are not yet explicitly clear. Others have questioned his approach and called for more explicit public pressure.

On Tuesday — 48 hours before key votes on his historic government overhaul — Biden’s aides determined even an afternoon outside of Washington was a wasted opportunity. The White House abruptly scrapped Biden’s trip to the Chicago suburbs, surprising some local officials who’d been preparing for his arrival at a construction site to promote vaccine mandates.

Aides were actively weighing a visit on Thursday to Capitol Hill, where the opposing currents of the Democratic Party are set to collide as critical votes loom.

“Our big gun is staying here,” one person familiar with the internal discussions said, describing a strategy that places Biden at the very center of the highest-stakes negotiation of his five-decade life in politics.

Asked on Wednesday if Biden regards himself as “the closer” in the negotiations, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said his focus was on arriving at a deal.

“I’ll let other people label it and give baseball analogies should they chose,” she said, describing the current moment in talks as “precarious.”

“The President’s focus is on, yes, unifying the caucus, resolving disagreements, reminding people what’s at stake here, what we’re trying to do here,” she said. “He’s somebody who’s been through a few of these battles, fights, litigations, negotiations before and that’s what he’s working to get done: to close it.”

Long considered one of the Senate’s consummate dealmakers, Biden is still trying to find common ground between progressives who want sweeping changes to the nation’s social safety net and moderates who are concerned about the cost and scale of the plan. For the past several weeks, he has worked his way through call lists of lawmakers, seeking out their demands while talking up the benefits of his agenda.

He has ended some calls and meetings vocally frustrated at the inability to nail down certain Democrats, aides said, but has been encouraged after others that a deal is in sight. Despite the crush of deadlines, one official described the President as “not really too high, not really too low — he understands the tempo and pace in how these kinds of things play.”

Biden himself has alluded to that cadence in recent days, noting several times that despite what has been billed as a “make or break” week, negotiations will certainly slip beyond its end. Even if a planned vote Thursday on a bipartisan infrastructure bill fails or gets pulled in the House, there is no plan to walk away from the talks, according to officials. The stakes are simply too high, both on the political and policy fronts, they acknowledge.

“It may not be by the end of the week,” Biden responded when asked how he would define success at the end of this week. “I hope it’s by the end of the week.

Biden’s sanguine posture hasn’t always been matched by his top aides, the official acknowledged, and progressive and moderate Democrats on Capitol Hill have been open in their skepticism of the other side — and, in some cases, of Biden himself.

Still, Biden’s efforts this week have provided a window into a president who believes things will eventually come together and that his approach, honed over five decades, is far and away the most effective in the path to that outcome.

In his conversations with lawmakers, people describe Biden doing a lot of the talking. He has underscored how popular individual aspects of his plan are, like combating climate change and tax breaks for childcare. He’s spoken at length about the potential to dramatically improve conditions for tens of millions of Americans. And he’s used blunt terms to convey his expectations that Democrats stick together — and stay united behind him.

“The President, as you all know, was in the Senate for 36 years. He didn’t want any president to tell him what to do, he’s not going to tell anyone what to do,” Psaki said this week. “He is going to have a discussion, have an engagement. Those can be direct, those can be candid, those can be straightforward.”

Deal-making reputation on the line

At no other point in his presidency so far has Biden so urgently been called upon to make good on his vow to act as a uniter and finder-of-consensus. The skills he is bringing to bear on the negotiations are the ones he promised American voters he would use to repair a fractured political culture during last year’s campaign.

Handing out individually wrapped chocolate chip cookies, which the White House kitchen has been churning out as his signature giveaway, Biden has engaged Oval Office visitors in their concerns with the unique perspective of someone who once held their job.

Hosting an Oval Office meeting early in his term with Republicans, Biden declared happily, “I feel like I’m back in the Senate, which I liked the best of everything I did.”

Yet Biden hasn’t been a senator for more than a decade, and the political environment has shifted dramatically since he was serving on Capitol Hill. Backroom deals are now a rarity in a radically polarized new world, where compromise is viewed as a weakness. Ideological divisions among Democrats have created a level of mistrust that Biden must surmount while also holding together the thinnest of majorities in the House and Senate.

Biden and his team have also acknowledged a chaotic August that stretched into September prevented the President from making a more robust case for his domestic agenda. The messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, a new Covid-19 surge propelled by the Delta variant and a series of natural disasters all consumed Biden’s attention — to the detriment of a more proactive approach to his sweeping social agenda.

“I had hoped I would be doing what I did in the campaign: I’d be out making the case about what my plan proposal contained. And it’s been very much curtailed by a whole range of things,” Biden said at the end of last week, lamenting the unplanned events that waylaid him from campaigning for his economic plans.

There has been palpable frustration about the messaging on his agenda, from Biden on down, as warring Democrats have squared off in recent weeks, officials said. It is frustration that grows when top advisers stare at polling that shows clear majority of Americans support the key planks in isolation — including tax increases on corporations and the wealthy — and as a single package.

Messaging memos, briefings and a stream of polling have been directed to congressional Democrats in recent weeks in an effort to shift what has been seen as critical elements of pitching the proposal that have been engulfed by battles over topline numbers and intraparty disputes.

White House aides insist the repeated meetings this week are a sign progress was being made toward a final agreement on Biden’s agenda.

“We don’t hold repeated visits here if we didn’t believe we had a shot,” one senior administration official said. “It’s more likely than a shot. But it certainly isn’t done yet.”

Other Democrats have adopted a more skeptical view, suggesting Biden’s private meetings had so far yielded little that could break a stalemate between the two wings of his party.

“This is the moment for him to step up,” one House Democrat told CNN. “Meetings aren’t enough — he’s the President and we should know exactly what he wants and where we’re going.”

Manchin and Sinema get special attention

On Tuesday, Biden spent several hours meeting separately with two of the moderates who have come to hold the keys to his agenda, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, attempting to nail down their demands on the massive social and environmental package he is trying to get through Congress alongside a smaller bipartisan public works bill that’s already been approved in the Senate.

Sinema has created stacks of spreadsheets tracking the costs and potential tax increases linked to each provision in the large spending bill, according to people familiar with the matter, which she uses in talks with administration officials to explain her concerns. Her message, according to White House officials, has repeatedly been that $3.5 trillion is too high a price tag for her to get behind.

Sinema returned to the White House twice Tuesday for talks with administration officials, and a group of Biden’s lead negotiators — including domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, senior adviser Steve Ricchetti, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese and legislative affairs director Louisa Terrell — traveled to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to meet with her to discuss the issues she raised in her meeting with Biden.

In his meetings with Sinema and Manchin, Biden has pressed his fellow Democrats to settle on a price tag they could support and to prioritize which programs they’d like to see passed, according to people familiar with the talks.

“He basically said, ‘Find a number you’re comfortable with based on the needs that we still have and how we deliver to the American people,'” Manchin said following a meeting at the White House last Wednesday, when Biden separately convened liberal and centrist Democrats to push them toward compromise. “‘Please just work on it. Give me a number and tell me what you can live with and what you can’t.'”

Seven days later, Manchin was back in the Oval Office for a one-on-one with the President that stretched more than an hour. Aides described it variously as “cordial,” “productive” and “workmanlike.” Yet Manchin said afterward he didn’t fulfill Biden’s ask from a week earlier for a topline number — and made “no commitments” on timeline for finalizing a deal, either.

“It’s always been a very productive meeting with the President,” Manchin said. “We understand getting to know each other better and being understanding where his vision for the country and the things he wants to do, and I respect and appreciate all that. And he’s very good at listening and what my concerns may be.”

Impatience is growing

The precise details of Biden’s discussions with Manchin and Sinema have been closely held as all sides work to preserve privacy in the hopes of cultivating trust among the participants. But people familiar with Biden’s approach say he has consistently drawn upon his long experience as a senator in how he speaks and interacts with lawmakers, mindful of the particular amount of space and latitude each requires.

Still, without a clear topline number from the two nor a clear sense of what they would need to come on board, some Democrats are growing impatient.

“The President needs them to say what they’re for, and then I trust he will do a good job negotiating,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who is a member of the House Progressive Caucus. “But if someone won’t show you their cards, you don’t know what you’re doing and that’s the real problem. We need ‘Manchin-ema’ to do their jobs.”

The White House said Biden was frank in his discussions with the moderate senators about what he was looking for and the stakes of the moment. But they stopped short of detailing what specifically he was asking from his fellow Democrats.

“I can assure you that when he has conversations, they’re quite candid, they’re direct,” Psaki said Tuesday when asked about the President’s approach. “And he’s had a long relationship, a good relationship with Sen. Sinema, as he has had with Sen. Manchin.”

A separate White House official bristled at the idea Biden could “just snap his fingers and say, ‘I’m President, get in line.'”

“Not sure who thinks trying to jam Manchin and Sinema is a great plan, but it certainly isn’t viewed as an effective approach here,” the official said.

Speaking in a morning meeting with Democrats on Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi implored her members not to publicly blast the President for his tactics. Instead, Pelosi insisted the President was trying his best in dealing with moderates — and stressed it was important to trust him.

“She was trying to appeal to people to do the right thing,” one member said.

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s John Harwood and Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.

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