Politics

Biden had 'productive' meetings with divided Democrats, but more work remains on spending bills

Key Points
  • President Joe Biden stepped in to personally attempt to resolve divisions that are tearing congressional Democrats apart and threatening his entire domestic agenda.
  • Biden met Wednesday at the White House with key moderate and progressive Democrats from both houses of Congress.
  • Senators and the White House used words like "constructive" and "productive" to describe the meetings afterwards, and signaled that more work will be done in the coming days.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks outside the White House with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA).
Kevin Dietsch | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — After weeks of rising tensions among congressional Democrats, President Joe Biden stepped in Wednesday to personally attempt to resolve divisions that were threatening to tear the Democratic caucus apart and tank the president's first-term domestic agenda.

Biden hosted key members of at least four warring factions of congressional Democrats on Wednesday afternoon: moderates in the House, progressives in the House, moderates in the Senate and progressives in the Senate.

Biden's goal was to broker a compromise between the different groups and to find common ground on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a $3 trillion-plus climate and social safety net bill.

VIDEO2:2002:20
Democratic Senators, Congress haggle over agenda

Senators who attended the meetings later used words like "productive" and "constructive" to describe them.

"It was a very good meeting, it was a very constructive meeting," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. told NBC News. "The President was very engaged and involved and I think everybody could say what they felt and everybody wants to work together if they can and find a path forward."

The White House said the meetings were "productive and candid" in a readout that was issued Wednesday night. "There is more work ahead in the coming days, and [Biden] and his team will have follow-up meetings, starting tomorrow, to continue to advance the process of passing these critical bills," it said.

The delicate intraparty negotiations took place against the backdrop of two more looming but unrelated deadlines: a Sept. 30 deadline to fund the government or risk a shutdown, and a likely mid-October deadline to raise the debt ceiling or risk the United States defaulting on its sovereign debt. 

Each of these issues, the debt ceiling and the annual government funding bill, has traditionally required high-wire negotiations between Congress and the White House. But neither of them were Biden's priority on Wednesday.

While the specifics change hour by hour, at the heart of the tension within the Democratic caucuses is that House moderates don't want to vote for a huge green energy and education bill until their priority — a bipartisan infrastructure bill — passes the House first.

But House progressives don't want to vote in favor of the bipartisan infrastructure bill until their top priority, the social safety net legislation, passes the Senate.

That tension did not appear to have been resolved on Wednesday, according to the lawmakers who issued statements or spoke to press afterwards.

After a career spent negotiating bills in the Senate, Biden is no stranger to tough talks and compromise. But his style of negotiating typically relies on personal trust and long-term friendships.

After he helped to broker a compromise between Republicans and Democrats on infrastructure this summer, Biden explained that he and the senators involved "go back a long way, where we're used to doing one thing: Give each other our word and that's the end."

But when it comes to key progressives in the House, Biden does not have that kind of trust.

On the contrary, many House progressives are privately skeptical of Biden's progressive bona fides. They view him as fundamentally a centrist, someone who talks about progressive principles but who eventually compromises on those principles in order to make a deal and pass a watered-down bill.

First, the centrists

Starting at 2 p.m. ET, the president huddled with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Pelosi's meeting with Biden came as she was weighing whether to uphold a pledge to centrists to schedule a vote on the infrastructure bill for Monday, Sept. 27.

House progressives have threatened to sink that vote if the Senate doesn't pass their social safety net and climate policy bill by Monday.

But given the complicated rules governing a big social safety net bill, which needs to be written in the style of a budget bill, Senate Democrats see no way that they could finish crafting the bill and vote on it before Monday.

Following their meeting Wednesday, Pelosi declined to say whether she still planned to hold the Monday vote.

"I will not be talking about that right now. We are on schedule, that's all I will say. And we're calm, and everybody's good, and our work is almost done. So we're in good shape," she told reporters in the Capitol.

"We made some good progress," Schumer said, describing the huddle as a "very good meeting."

"We're working hard, and we're moving along," he added.

Following the Pelosi and Schumer meeting, Biden met with a group of moderate Democrats from the House and Senate.

These moderates included Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the New Jersey Democrat who insisted that Pelosi schedule the Monday infrastructure vote.

Following the meeting, Gottheimer issued a written statement saying, "everyone in the room agreed on two things — that we need to pass the President's Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill on Monday, and that, separately, we also want a reconciliation package. And that we can get there."

The two most-watched Democratic members of the Senate, centrist Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, also attended this meeting, which began shortly after 3:30 p.m.

Both Manchin and Sinema have taken issue with the social safety net bill's proposed $3.5 trillion price tag. Manchin has even urged his party to wait for months to pass the bill — something that infuriates House progressives. They worry that if they vote to pass the centrists' infrastructure bill now, without seeing the reconciliation bill pass first, then party leaders will water down the bill containing their priorities in order to win Manchin's approval.

If either Sinema or Manchin votes against the big budget reconciliation bill, it would doom the plan.

This is likely part of the reason the president included two other centrist Democrats in this big meeting: Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Mark Warner of Virginia.

Warner and Tester both helped to craft the bipartisan infrastructure bill with Republicans earlier this summer and are known for their skill at negotiating different interests within the party.

Then, the progressives

Later in the day, Biden huddled with key progressives.

One of them was Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Jayapal leads the House faction demanding the Senate vote on the big House budget bill before she and her fellow progressives will come together to pass the infrastructure bill in the House.

Following the meeting, Jayapal issued a statement saying she told Biden essentially the same thing about how the Progressive Caucus will vote that she has told other party leaders.

"A majority of our 96-member caucus will only vote for the small infrastructure bill after the Build Back Better Act passes," said Jayapal, referring to the legislative name of the reconciliation bill.

Also at that meeting were key progressives in the Senate, including Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Afterwards, Wyden said he was more optimistic than he had been before the meeting, and he suggested that Biden was sympathetic to progressives' argument that Monday's date for a vote on the infrastructure bill was arbitrary, and therefore could easily be changed.

"The President is going to have conversation with the Speaker and the Majority Leader, and they're going to talk about what's the full range of possibilities are," Wyden told reporters at the Capitol.

Sanders, too, sounded optimistic that the Monday vote would be delayed, but added, "I don't want to speak for the president."

As Biden was meeting with lawmakers Wednesday, 11 liberal senators put more pressure on Pelosi to delay the infrastructure vote until the Senate passes the party's budget bill.

"We strongly support the Congressional Progressive Caucus and other members in the House who have said they intend to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill only once the Build Back Better Act is passed," the lawmakers wrote. "That is what we agreed to, it's what the American people want, and it's the only path forward for this Congress."

The senators who signed on to the statement included Sanders and Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, all of whom met with Biden on Wednesday.

The other Democrats who urged Pelosi to delay the infrastructure vote were Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Alex Padilla of California, Tina Smith of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

— CNBC's Jacob Pramuk contributed to this report.