At a town hall hosted by CNN on Thursday, President Biden was repeatedly asked about the status of contentious budget negotiations with Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. While he expressed a measure of confidence that a deal could be reached with the two moderates, he also made clear how much work remained.
Biden revealed some of the provisions of the Build Back Better infrastructure plan and budget deal that Manchin and Sinema have balked at supporting, including a plan championed by congressional progressives to expand Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing. He said it would be a “reach” for the White House to get all three covered, mostly due to the two senators’ opposition to “all three,” though he signaled that Sinema seemed open, at least, to expanding hearing coverage.
Biden’s strategy at the town hall seemed to be to detail which specific provisions of the two bills Manchin and Sinema have objected to during negotiations. According to the president, the Arizona senator, whose priorities have been a bit more hidden from the public, told him privately that while she is very supportive of the family care portion of his budget proposal, she’s unwilling to support anything that would hike taxes for the wealthy.
“She’s smart as the devil,” Biden said of Sinema at the town hall in Baltimore, adding that she “will not raise a single penny in taxes on the corporate side and/or on wealthy people, period.”
Despite anger from progressive Democrats, White House officials have maintained that Sinema is a trustworthy negotiating partner, even though she and Manchin have proved a near-insurmountable roadblock for Biden’s plan to remake the social contract and address climate change.
“We believe that Sen. Sinema is negotiating in good faith,” deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Thursday. “The president considers Sen. Sinema an important partner in getting his economic agenda passed, and he values her work, her engagement and her commitment to working with him to deliver for the American people.”
Thanks to the ongoing objections raised by the two moderate senators, Biden has been forced to make several concessions, he added, including slashing parental leave coverage from its promised 12 weeks down to four, again due to Manchin’s unwillingness to budge. The West Virginia senator from coal country has also single-handedly nixed Biden’s Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) provision, and has opposed increasing child tax credits without the inclusion of a work requirement.
Still, even while detailing their differences, Biden said Thursday that Manchin is “not a bad guy. He’s a friend.”
“There’s a lot of things that Joe is open to my convincing him to increase environmental progress without it being that particular deal,” he said of Manchin’s opposition to the downed CEPP proposal.
Though Biden was unable to say whether he could guarantee that Democrats would reach a deal to pass the two bills before he travels to the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, at the end of the month, he did portray negotiations as being in their final stage.
“We’re down to four or five issues, which I’m not going to negotiate on national television,” he added.
But many in the audience were less than enthused by the slow pace of passing new legislation during Biden’s first year.
“You received overwhelming support from the Black community, and rightfully so, but now many of us are disheartened as we watch a Congress fail to support police reform, we watch our voting rights vanish before our very eyes,” Thaddeus Price, a Black resident from Randallstown, Md., said when it was his turn at the microphone. “Mr. President, my question is, what will you do over the next three years to rectify these atrocities, secure our democracy and ensure the freedoms and liberties that all Americans should be entitled to?”
Biden responded: “I tell you what my greatest regret is … I had these three major pieces of legislation that are going to change the circumstances for working-class folks and African Americans as well, that I’ve been busting my neck trying to pass. But what it’s done is prevented me from getting deeply up to my ears — which I’m going to do once this is done — in dealing with police brutality, dealing with the whole notion of: What are we going to do about voting rights?”
Pressed by moderator Anderson Cooper about whether he had warmed to the idea of eliminating the filibuster so that Democrats could pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act with a simple majority vote, Biden made news by saying he was open to it on that issue “and maybe more.”
But the president quickly threw water on the idea that filibuster reform would come quickly.
“Here is the deal — if, in fact, I get myself into at this moment the debate on the filibuster, I lose at least three votes right now to get what I have to get done on the economic side of the equation, foreign policy side of the equation,” he said.
And while killing the filibuster would, in theory, open the possibility that Democrats could pass their ambitious agenda, the fact remains that two moderate senators — named Manchin and Sinema — have already signaled they won’t go along with that plan.
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