Biden faces a reckoning on his agenda as top aides start to temper expectations

The delayed vote does not mean the end of Biden’s quest to fundamentally change the country’s social safety net and reorient its tax code. But it does amount to an embarrassing setback for a President who ran on his experience as a master dealmaker and convener of the disparate wings of the Democratic Party.
The postponed vote was the culmination of a day of furious arm-twisting and haggling between feuding factions of his party that ultimately did not succeed in bringing all sides together behind his plans to enhance the social safety net and spend hundreds of billions combating climate change.

Senior White House officials shuttled between offices on Capitol Hill working to broker an agreement but were unsuccessful in hammering out a framework that satisfied both progressive and moderate Democrats.

The White House insisted Thursday’s delay was not the end of the road, writing in a statement late in the day that work resumes “tomorrow morning first thing” on negotiating the sweeping social and environmental package.

And despite the delay, significant progress was made Thursday in working with Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona on a framework they could support — the first serious talks on the spending bill so far.

Yet without the deadline pressure, it’s unclear how and when liberal and centrist Democrats will find agreement on the expansive plan. The two sides still appeared miles apart when the evening ended Thursday without a deal, and seemed to infuriate some liberals, like independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, in the process.

Thursday’s outcome, while not final, is a blow to Biden’s reputation as a consummate Washington horse-trader, a trait he promised voters he would employ to restore trust in government. He may still find a deal, but for now his entire domestic agenda hangs in the balance.

It was certain to cause more grumbling among Democrats, not only directed toward the two Senate moderates who appear to hold singular power over the entire legislative process, but also at Biden, who has been unwilling so far to wage a public pressure campaign on those senators to see his agenda passed.

Top administration officials had been ratcheting down expectations for a Thursday vote on the public works package, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had scheduled as a pressure point for Senate moderates to strike a deal on a more expansive social and environmental spending bill. Throughout the day, Pelosi insisted the vote would occur.

“It is not some major cataclysm if there isn’t a vote today,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said on CNN early Thursday. “This will get through. Mark my words. The infrastructure bill will be passed and a version of the reconciliation bill will be as well.”

Pelosi had made clear she would not bring a bill up for a vote if it was destined to fail, making a delay the only option after she and her team determined the bill lacked support.

The Thursday deadline had been engineered to pressure lawmakers into arriving at a deal on the larger spending bill, and it was unclear whether the same impetus would apply should the vote slide much longer than Friday. As lawmakers gear up for the 2022 midterm elections, officials acknowledge the odds become steeper to arrive at an agreement.

Shortly after Pelosi ruled against putting the infrastructure bill on the floor Thursday night, White House press secretary Jen Psaki emphasized that this is not the end of the road.

“A great deal of progress has been made this week, and we are closer to an agreement than ever,” Psaki said in a statement.

Biden had no public events on his schedule Thursday. Officials had, at one point, left open the possibility the President could travel to Capitol Hill to meet lawmakers in person, but that option became less likely as the day wore on.

Some White House officials were skeptical throughout the day that an agreement of any kind was possible, but Biden made clear to Pelosi in the Oval Office on Wednesday night that if she wanted to push for one, he’d ensure she had every resource from his team to try to get something done, one official said.

That was the genesis of the all-out behind-the-scenes effort from Biden’s lead policy negotiators and Pelosi’s and Schumer’s top policy aides throughout the day.

Biden remained in the West Wing on Thursday evening receiving updates from his negotiating team on Capitol Hill as they worked to secure an outline on his domestic agenda.

One official described Biden as relatively even-keeled in this moment, despite the high stakes. “He knows how these things go,” the official said, citing Biden’s five decades in Washington. “He wants this to pass, and thinks it will.”

During an appearance at the annual Congressional Baseball Game on Wednesday evening, Biden spoke casually to both Democrats and Republicans, but his presence was more of a goodwill gesture than a hard-nosed attempt to strike a deal. At one point during the game, Pelosi was caught on camera holding an animated telephone conversation as she attempts to hold her caucus together behind Biden’s agenda.

For Biden, breaking the stalemate is a necessity if he hopes to achieve the litany of campaign pledges contained within the sweeping $3.5 trillion bill. Other legislative priorities — like revisions on immigration, policing and voting rights — have little current prospects of success, even though Democrats hold majorities in both the House and Senate.

Over the past week, the President has engaged in intensive discussions with lawmakers from both wings of the party to try to find common ground on the historic spending measure, which includes an expansion of health care, education, child care, paid leave and a major new climate change initiative.

His primary focus over the past days has been Manchin and Sinema — key Democratic holdouts on the larger spending bill. They met separately with Biden in the Oval Office on Tuesday. Biden spoke to Manchin again on Wednesday, a senior administration official told CNN.

On Thursday, the senator made clear that $1.5 trillion was the price tag he was willing to settle on — putting him $2 trillion away from the lowest number progressive Democrats have said they would accept.

Less clear has been Sinema, who has arrived at meetings with White House officials armed with a stack of spreadsheets detailing individual programs and associated tax increases.

This story has been updated with additional reporting Thursday.

CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Manu Raju contributed to this report.

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