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‘Nobody wants to blink:’ A canceled trip, deal-less meetings and 24 hours to thread the needle


By Phil Mattingly and Lauren Fox, CNN

In a moment when President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders sought to create desperately needed momentum to pass key parts of the President’s agenda, everything appeared to turn in the exact opposite direction.

Biden’s meetings with two key Democratic moderates yielded nothing in the form of a tangible — and absolutely necessary — public commitment or acknowledgment of their preferred path forward.

The progressive outcry against the planned vote on Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package didn’t just hold, according to several members it actually grew in numbers over the course of the day.

With 24 hours until Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged to hold the infrastructure vote, something needs to unlock, and fast, for Biden and Democratic leaders to have any hope of success.

“Nobody wants to blink, everyone thinks the other side is about to,” said one source involved in the negotiations. “Neither is right about that, which puts us in a very bad place.”

Biden’s domestic agenda, in brief

This is an incredibly complex moment where the policy — and procedural — pathways to thread the legislative needle appear to be somewhere between miniscule and non-existent. Biden canceled a scheduled trip to Chicago, CNN’s Jeremy Diamond reported Tuesday night, in order to stay in Washington and continue meetings and calls with lawmakers. The urgency is palpable, and so is the anxiety that things won’t come together in the incredibly compressed time window.

Yet the topline dynamics at the moment aren’t actually all that complicated.

Progressives need firm commitments of some kind — a topline number, clear policy direction, something — from moderate Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin in order to support the infrastructure bill.

Manchin and Sinema, though they take very different approaches and have very different concerns on policy grounds, bristle at the infrastructure bill being used as leverage and won’t provide specifics on the economic and climate package.

Biden, who has worked for months on developing a solid — and trust-based — working relationship with the two, has essentially taken on the role as the closer of the most critical missing piece for any path forward: A clear view of where the two will land.

Dual meetings in the Oval Office yielded “some progress, got us deeper into the process,” according to one official familiar with the meetings. But there is still no clear topline number from the duo, nor a clear sense of what they would need to come on board.

And therein lies a pretty big problem.

Just to put a finer point on this: If, based on the last 24 hours, you think progressives are bluffing about sinking the bipartisan infrastructure bill, well … you’re probably living in a different universe.

This captures it all

No one is backing down

With House Democratic leadership’s self-imposed September 30 deadline to put the infrastructure vote on the floor now a day away, House progressives aren’t budging. House moderates are still demanding the vote. And Pelosi’s not one to violate her own policy that she won’t go to the floor without knowing she’s going to win.

Right now, progressives claim to have dozens of members ready to vote against Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and there’s been absolutely no indication this is a bluff. Progressives feel burned. They feel like they are always accepting less to get something and after nine months, they want to prove they aren’t kidding when they say they are standing firm.

“How many bills have we passed in the House that the Senate has not taken up? What about on voting rights? What about the George Floyd Justice in policing? This is not about trust. This is about verify,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the leader of the progressive caucus, said Tuesday.

Biden’s role

For all of the frustration with Manchin and Sinema, there’s also clear and growing irritation on Capitol Hill with Biden. Not with his agenda, which has wide and deep support throughout the vast majority of both caucuses. Not with his team or their efforts. But with Biden specifically.

“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.”

This ties directly into the frustration with Manchin and Sinema, and the belief among some Democrats that if Manchin told them exactly what he wanted, or demanded they come along, that’s what would happen.

That doesn’t appear to be Biden’s read on those two members — or the moment, according to people familiar with the conversations.

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

Overall though, Psaki wouldn’t delve deeper into Biden’s approach, noting, “We’re obviously in a very sensitive time right now in these discussions, a pivotal time in these discussions.”

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.

Manchin and Sinema are not the same

Both members have played their cards close to the vest, revealing very little publicly about what exactly it is they will get behind. That’s strategic, but for two very different reasons — something that is critical to understanding this moment. These members aren’t monolithic, have dramatically different approaches and significantly different concerns. That makes the effort to bring them on aboard all the more complicated (and time consuming).


Manchin said earlier this month that he wanted a “strategic pause” on the bigger social safety net plan. When folks scratch their heads wondering why Manchin is not giving a topline, not hurrying to the negotiating table, not engaging in intensive back and forth with his colleagues on the minutia of health policy or revenue raisers, it’s not a secret. He’s said it plain and simple, publicly and privately. He’s not comfortable moving forward right now with a massive piece of legislation at a time when he has concerns about inflation. He’s just not ready.

The White House has gone to great lengths to address his concerns and lay out in specific detail on economic grounds how and why the proposal addresses the very issues he’s raising.

Biden, cognizant of the dynamics, didn’t press Manchin for a specific commitment, but instead spent a good part of their meeting talking about the merits of the programs and proposals inside, how they track with Manchin’s goals and why they are a necessity in this moment, according to one person familiar with the meeting.

But Biden did stress the urgency of that moment as well, something that simply hasn’t moved Manchin to this point.

Manchin’s not hiding the ball on what he is doing here. He says it every day. He believes this process is going to take time, and that it should.

On progressives threat to vote “no” on the infrastructure bill?

“Holding one hostage over the other is not fair and not right. It’s not good for the country,” he said.


Senate colleagues watching Sinema, however, argue she’s harder for them to read.

For one, Sinema is very strategic and practical about who she is sharing her perspective with. It’s not her style to lay out every provision she is upset by in the press nor is it her disposition to talk to every one of her colleagues about those concerns.

She goes directly to the majority leader, the committee chairmen and yes, the President (and his staff.)

Over the last two weeks, there haven’t been many days where SInema hasn’t talked at least via text with White House staff. Sinema is described by those who know her as an operator and someone who goes into the weeds on policy. When something is drafted one way, aides and members say, she’s got to understand why. It means that things take time and at times, it’s means she is not going to say yes until she absolutely means it.

That, according to several people involved, reflects the moment Sinema is in with the White House right now.

There was a sense Sinema was heading in the right direction on Monday, only to have it become clear that wasn’t the case throughout the day on Tuesday.

In Sinema’s Oval Office meeting with Biden she made “abundantly clear” she wasn’t ready to make any commitments or get on board with the economic and climate package, one person familiar with the conversation told CNN.

Biden directed staff to meet with Sinema to follow up on specific issues not once, but twice, in White House meetings in the afternoon and into the night. It’s the process officials believe is the best — and likely only — way to get Sinema to where she needs to be.

But she is very clearly not there yet — and the clock is ticking.

Where things stand

Between a government shutdown, a debt default, a sweeping infrastructure bill and society-transforming economic and climate package, all tied to some form of a looming deadline, the lack of clarity about how Biden, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pull it all off — or in Pelosi’s words “land the plane” — is palpable.

Taking one crisis off the table

One thing that appears close to resolution is funding the government. Democrats circulated a “clean” bill to fund the government at its current levels through December 3, according to a copy obtained by CNN. Democratic and Republican leaders are pressing to vote to pass the measure is likely on Wednesday. A House vote is possible as well, aides say.

The move would take a government shutdown, which is set to begin in a little more than 24 hours, off the table.

Leaving one entirely unresolved

The breakthrough on the government funding piece of the puzzle left one critical — and potentially catastrophic — issue unresolved. Democrats were forced to strip out a debt ceiling suspension from the bill for Republicans to come on board.

House Democrats will now vote to lob a clean debt ceiling increase over to the Senate on Wednesday.

Senate Republicans, who blocked the funding bill with suspension, as well as an effort to clear the way for Democrats to pass a debt ceiling increase with a simple majority vote, will block that as well.

Privately, Biden has discussed with Schumer and Pelosi the reality that Democrats will have to move to address the issue via a fast-track budget process that allows for a simple majority vote, according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.

Pelosi has acknowledged privately that is the most likely resolution. Schumer, however, has remained dead set against it for the moment.

“Going through the long, convoluted, difficult reconciliation process with debt limit is very, very risky,” Schumer told reporters on Tuesday. “We’re not pursuing that.”

The reality

Schumer is correct that it is a time consuming process. But it’s also one that gives Democrats a lot of leeway to address the debt limit, as Democrats know due to quiet discussions with the parliamentarian’s office in recent weeks, according to two people with knowledge of the talks.

The time element, however, is why multiple people directly involved in the process on the Democratic side of things have told CNN they are starting to grow concerned about how this is being pursued.

“Not sure anyone understands the strategy here, beyond the idea of saying we’re winning on something no normal person is paying attention to and threatens actual catastrophe,” one House Democrat told CNN.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen laid down the most definitive deadline for action before default on Tuesday: October 18.

The reconciliation process will take roughly two weeks. Do the math. This is a far riskier moment than people seem to realize.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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