President Biden headed to Capitol Hill on Friday in a last-ditch mission to salvage his teetering economic agenda amid criticism from fellow Democrats that he waited too long to become involved in the negotiating process.
Some said the meeting between Mr. Biden and the House Democratic caucus was long overdue. Democrats grumbled to each other and the media about Mr. Biden’s delay in reaching out to rank-and-file members.
While the party went to war with each other over Mr. Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and $3.5 trillion expansion of the social safety net, he remained quietly working behind the scenes with key lawmakers in both the House and Senate.
Despite the private diplomacy, Mr. Biden couldn’t resolve the standoff between the Democratic centrists and the progressives over his agenda. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, was forced late Thursday to delay a vote on the $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
The pulled vote has some wondering if Mr. Biden should have used the bully pulpit of the presidency earlier to urge Democrats to come together and get his bills past the finish line.
“I’m surprised we haven’t seen more from him in the form of public remarks,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “This is a time when presidents should be putting their thumbs on the scale. A five-minute speech guarantees media coverage for the rest of the day.”
But Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said Mr. Biden’s plan to focus on a few key players on the Hill rather than make his case directly to the American people is the right move at this juncture.
“This is the big story on the news so there is plenty of publicity and the president couldn’t make this fight any more visible in the media,” Mr. Bannon said.
Still, Democrats have criticized the president for waiting too long to make a broader appeal to lawmakers.
House Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, Washington state Democrat, said the president should have engaged “sooner” on the reconciliation bills.
Rep. Debbie Dingell, Michigan Democrat, griped that Mr. Biden was focused on key Democratic centrists in the evenly divided Senate while ignoring the more numerous progressives and other factions that could deny him a major victory.
“I think he’s got to talk to more than two senators,” she told MSNBC in an interview.
Ms. Dingell said the White House was sending mixed signals on what the president wanted lawmakers to do.
While lawmakers feuded, Mr. Biden stayed out of the public view. He only made two public appearances this week.
On Monday, he received his COVID-19 booster shot and briefly answered questions from reporters. Two days later, Mr. Biden appeared at the Congressional Baseball Game, handing out ice cream bars to lawmakers.
Mr. Biden scrapped a planned trip to Chicago to promote vaccine mandates on Wednesday to stay close to the talks in Washington and meet with Democratic leaders.
Mr. Heye said canceling the trip didn’t make any sense, because Mr. Biden could have talked with those leaders by phone from Air Force One.
“If you are going to cancel the trip it has to be more than a few private meetings and going to the ballgame,” he said.
But Mr. Bannon disagreed, saying the outcome of his negotiations is more valuable than his trip to Chicago.
Mr. Biden, who spent more than three decades in the Senate before becoming vice president in 2009, met with Ms. Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat, at the White House Wednesday. On Tuesday, he met with Sens. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat, and Krysten Sinema, Arizona Democrat, the two centrists who oppose the size of his economic proposals.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has defended its strategy of private negotiations, saying the most constructive role for the president is to unify his party in the face of a hostile, united Republican opposition.
“Anyone who’s ever been through a legislative fight before knows that the negotiations and dealmaking always happens at the end,” she told reporters Friday. “It doesn’t matter how the process works or how many weeks — it always happens at the end.”
Still, some see Mr. Biden’s trip to Capitol Hill as an acknowledgment by the White House that Mr. Biden needed to become more aggressive if he hopes to push through the centerpiece of his economic agenda ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
“This is an extraordinary step for the president to make the trip down Pennsylvania Avenue,” Mr. Bannon said. “It does underscore the importance of the package, but also his presidency. A lot of his agenda is riding on passage and he’s going the extra mile.”
The Capitol Hill visit is a sign of a strategy shift by the White House. Ms. Psaki told reporters Friday the president will travel to an undisclosed state next week to make the case for his economic agenda directly to the American people.