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Biden and Democratic leaders’ path forward vanishing after failing to make an infrastructure deal

By Phil Mattingly and Lauren Fox, CNN

There is no deal. There is no commitment. There is no framework. There may be no vote because, barring some dramatic change, there aren’t the votes.

President Joe Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer failed to thread the needle between restive corners of their caucuses on a self-imposed (or “self-inflicted,” in the words of one House Democrat) deadline to pass a core tenet of their domestic agenda.

Barring some unseen dramatic shift, there appear to be only two real options in the hours ahead: Hold the scheduled vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill and watch it fail or pull the bill.

Each option carries strategic value. It will be up to Pelosi, who prides herself on not having bills fail under her watch, to decide which route to take.

The bottom line is that Biden and Pelosi, after days of feverish behind-the-scenes efforts, enter the day with no clear path to securing a majority in the scheduled vote on the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. But the process isn’t over, that agenda isn’t dead and there are still weeks, if not months, ahead of negotiations, according to multiple White House officials and lawmakers.

“It’s not like there’s an alternative,” one House Democrat said. “We’re in ‘failure is not an option’ territory here.”

Shutdown likely to be averted

But first, the government is not going to shut down, so lawmakers have that going for them. Or at least based on the agreements and schedule, there’s no reason the government should shut down (caveats are always key, based on experience).

The Senate will start a series of votes at 10:30 a.m. ET that will include the bill to fund the government through December 3. That bill will pass, then head over to the House for a likely vote at some point in the afternoon.

That will also pass, getting the bill to Biden’s desk a few hours before the midnight deadline. The debt ceiling on the other hand … more on that below.

The simplest way to view things at the moment

The dynamics haven’t shifted in the last several weeks. In many ways, they’ve only grown more entrenched.

Progressive Democrats aren’t just planning to withhold their votes from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill unless they receive progress on the second, multi-trillion economic and climate package. They have been asking for legislative text. They want to know exactly what they are getting in the bigger bill before they sign on to moderates’ infrastructure plan. It’s called leverage, but it’s also called bringing Biden’s agenda to the brink.

“We cannot negotiate with ourselves,” Rep. Katie Porter, a progressive, told CNN. “People say, ‘Are you willing to negotiate with Sen. Manchin?’ On what?”

Only two senators can provide that — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Neither have done so, nor do they plan to, according to people who have spoken to both in the last 24 hours.

So things are frozen, and will likely remain so until there is public movement from the two moderate hold-outs.

What Manchin and Sinema want

It’s not a mystery. He doesn’t believe in spending trillions and trillions of dollars on programs that he believes are going to become permanent and go to too many Americans.

He said this in a statement Wednesday night. He also laid it out to reporters on Wednesday as he was leaving the Capitol that this is his pause, and once he gets ready to negotiate, he wants a far narrower bill than what Biden and progressives imagined. He wants programs that can be means tested to be means tested. He wants to focus the Build Back Better agenda on overhauling tax cuts Republicans made in their 2017 tax bill, and he absolutely doesn’t want to be forced into making decisions overnight. By the end of the year? Maybe. If a deal can be done.

“Do you know how convoluted the tax system is? We don’t have a one-week, two-week deadline,” he said. “Everything is covered. There is nobody that is going to go without. … The child tax credit ends at the end of the year. Everything else goes way into next year and 2023. … Do a pause and let’s really take our time to work it.”

That doesn’t sound like a senator on the brink of putting out a detailed plan assuaging progressives’ concerns.

In other words, it’s going to take time, but there might be a reachable sweet spot in Manchin’s mind. Whether that matches the view of progressives is, of course, the only thing that really matters.

People who have spoken to Sinema similarly view her as committed to some kind of agreement. What that is, in the words of one of the people, “seems to depend on the day — it is work, real work, to figure out what matters to her and when.”

That said, White House officials said they felt tangible progress had been made over the course of a marathon 24 hours of meetings between Sinema and Biden’s lead negotiators and policy staff.

Biden, officials say, is also confident that Manchin will be there in the end based on what is viewed as a relationship of mutual trust and goals.

Is there any way the infrastructure bill passes?

Surveying more than two dozen lawmakers, aides and administration officials last night, the short answer as of Wednesday night was no.

Yet when asked, most also respond with a hint of a pause, as those involved try to figure out if Pelosi has some rabbit to pull out of a hat here. When Pelosi has a path, it’s usually quite clear — she’s not subtle about her end game or ability to will her caucus to that point. That notably hasn’t been the posture in the last few days.

“Honestly, you can’t ever really call anything dead if she hasn’t said it yet,” one House Democrat, who assumed the vote would be pulled, told CNN Wednesday night.

Pelosi’s play

Pelosi told CNN’s Manu Raju the plan was still to put the infrastructure bill on the floor. That followed a meeting with Biden and Schumer in the Oval Office.

But four days ago, the California Democrat said this on ABC’s “This Week”: “I’m never bringing a bill to the floor that doesn’t have the votes.”

White House officials similarly aren’t keen on watching a bill implode on the House floor, and several have hinted that the most likely action would be to pull the bill. Yet if one thing has been clear throughout the process, it’s that Biden trusts Pelosi implicitly, and will go in whichever direction she thinks is best for the caucus and an eventual outcome.

There will be no daylight between the two, something that hasn’t always been the case the last several days between Pelosi and Schumer.

There is a strategy behind putting a bill on the floor in order for it to fail and send a message (this is a tried-and-true Senate strategy.) That’s not out of the realm of possibility, even though it’s very clearly not how Pelosi operates.

Again, this is a moment where things are just going to have to play out. As Pelosi said on Wednesday night: “One hour at a time.”

This isn’t good. But it’s definitely not dead

There’s no way around the fact that in the most critical week for Biden’s domestic agenda, with hours of meetings and lobbying and pressure and positioning, Biden and Democratic leaders weren’t able to strike a deal to clear the path forward.

The fallout between already warring elements inside the party has the potential to be dramatic and damaging. In the near term, multiple lawmakers and officials said the most important thing will be managing the fallout from a week that has only served to exacerbate intraparty tensions.

And Biden, who views himself as someone who bridges that divide, will have to play a central role in patching things up in the days ahead.

The trust deficit at the moment is very, very real. And very, very problematic.

But the end game hasn’t changed, officials make clear. The goals and prerogatives of the factions haven’t gone away. There’s still a Senate-passed trillion dollar bill waiting and significant agreement on the central planks of a second multi-trillion proposal in the works.

“It wouldn’t be Congress if we weren’t trying to wrap up our biggest legislative accomplishments during the holidays,” one Democratic senator joked. Or at least it sounded like a joke, but only in the sense that there is humor in truth.

One last thing to keep in mind

For a large swath of the House, this is the first time many members have had all three levers of government: the White House, the House and the Senate. The limits of that power, the nuances of what’s possible? Those are just coming into view. For those House members, failures in the past were a symptom of Republican opposition, Senate inaction or a presidential veto. This is the first time for some of them that the blame would rest on the shoulders of the House Democratic caucus.

The fallout of that will be unfamiliar and the pressure they could face if this bill is brought to the floor and fails could be a real catalyst to maybe kick this process into gear.

“They have to spend a little more time looking at the consequences. You defeat a Democratic infrastructure bill and there will be hell to pay back home,” Rep. Gerry Connolly said.

The biggest issue in the immediate days ahead for Biden

The debt ceiling. The debt ceiling. The debt ceiling. The debt ceiling.

The level of alarm about the direction this standoff is headed is not nearly commiserate with the reality, based on conversations with more than a dozen lawmakers, aides and administration officials.

The deadline here is roughly October 18, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. That’s not a deadline for Treasury to start launching a bunch of secret tools to forestall default. That’s the deadline.

“At that point, we expect Treasury would be left with very limited resources that would be depleted quickly,” Yellen wrote to lawmakers. “It is uncertain whether we could continue to meet all the nation’s commitments after that date.”

Senate Republicans will not vote to allow anything to move forward, pressing Democrats to move through the budget reconciliation process to get the job done. It’s a process that would take roughly two to three weeks. It’s been Sen. Mitch McConnell’s clear position since July, driven by a combination of not wanting to give GOP votes to the increase and embracing the ability to slow or create chaos at the same time Democrats are straining to pass their domestic agenda.

Schumer has rejected that out of hand. Pelosi, who didn’t originally do so, joined him in saying the same Wednesday night.

Schumer’s calculation, as laid out on the Senate floor: “As default gets closer and closer to becoming a reality, our Republican colleagues will be forced to ask themselves how long they are going to continue playing political games while the economic stability of our country is at risk.”

In other words, call McConnell on his bluff. It’s a strategy that hasn’t ended in a lot of Democratic victories in the last few years.

Some Democrats are ready to throw in the towel on that game of chicken.

“I worry that expecting them to [raise the debt ceiling] is like putting on rose-colored glasses and looking for a unicorn with a four-leaf clover. If they aren’t going to help us. we have to do it. We have the majority,” Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said.

As one senior GOP aide texted after seeing Schumer’s quote about how long Republicans could hold out in the stare down: “Longer than Biden and Democrats, that’s for sure.”

Based on the calendar alone, this needs to start to de-escalate roughly in the next few days for there to be an actual off-ramp. If it doesn’t, unthinkable catastrophe becomes quite thinkable.

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