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Biden and Democrats face dual front battle and have only 48 hours left

CNN logo CNN 9/28/2021 By Phil Mattingly and Lauren Fox, CNN
The Capitol is seen at dawn as a consequential week begins in Washington for President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress who are trying to advance his $3.5 trillion "Build Back Better" and pass legislation to avoid a federal shutdown, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) © J. Scott Applewhite/AP The Capitol is seen at dawn as a consequential week begins in Washington for President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress who are trying to advance his $3.5 trillion "Build Back Better" and pass legislation to avoid a federal shutdown, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders are in a stare down with Republicans over funding the government.

Democratic leaders and Biden have entered a stare down with the party's progressives as they move to de-link the two pieces of Biden's sweeping agenda and lock in the votes on infrastructure.

They have roughly 48 hours to resolve both.

No pressure.

It all adds up to the most acute test of the unified Democratic executive and legislative branches -- critical standoffs on two fronts, each with major political and policy ramifications. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will need to pull out all of the stops to whip votes. Biden will likely have to make clear publicly his support for Pelosi's decision to separate the two components of his agenda -- something that would put him crosswise with a segment of his party, which he's been loath to do.

All as they maneuver to overcome a GOP blockade on the debt limit in order to avoid a shutdown that would be catastrophic to their agenda efforts.

Where things stand

Government funding

Senate Republicans on Monday blocked a House-passed bill to fund the government and suspend the debt limit. Democrats will now pivot to a proposal without the debt limit suspension, according to multiple sources. The primary question now is the length. Do Democrats try a short-term funding bill and set up an even higher stakes debt limit fight -- with potentially catastrophic consequences -- in mid-October?

Or do they de-link the two and fund the government into December?

Multiple people involved said there is a lean toward the latter option, but final decisions hadn't been made as of late last night.

The infrastructure vote

Democratic leadership has made clear this is happening on September 30. That decision was made in clear consultation -- and with the support of -- Biden, according to people involved.

But Pelosi has made clear she doesn't bring bills to the floor that will fail. The White House has made clear its baseline is that the bill, whenever it gets to the floor, passes.

Here's the bottom line: This is now going to be one of the most intense 48-hour whipping periods Washington has seen in a long time, as Pelosi, her leadership team, Biden and the bipartisan centrists behind the infrastructure proposal work to stitch together 218 votes.

The economic/climate package

To be clear here, negotiations on some kind of "framework" or clear agreement to lay out the pathway for the multi-trillion dollar economic and climate package that sits at the true center of Biden's agenda are still occurring at a feverish clip. That would certainly make locking in the votes for the infrastructure proposal significantly easier, according to all involved.

But one thing has been made clear behind the scenes, according to people involved: Progressives will get no public commitment from Sens. Joe Manchin or Kyrsten SInema. Nor will they get some sweeping topline agreement.

So what can, or will, they accept as enough?

The debt limit

This is still very much a live issue, and also by far the most dangerous of those outstanding. McConnell made clear where he stood in July, whether it carried merit or not, and proved his conference -- to a member -- would stay with him on the issue.

Now Democrats need to decide whether they want to keep trying to claim the political high ground or if it's time to launch the process to raise the debt ceiling without Republicans.

Two Democratic aides said the White House and leadership are leaning toward the second option, but nothing is off the table at the moment.

Debt ceiling point of privilege

One thing to note: If this was really about Democrats taking the responsibility for the vote, as McConnell has laid out, then there's zero reason for Republicans to filibuster a suspension or increase.

Yet they've pledged to do just that. It lays bare how much of this is about creating procedural chaos and a bad political vote for Democrats.

The shutdown risk

To make this quite clear: There is a not-so-insignificant risk of a government shut down right now. White House officials and congressional Democrats have made clear a shut down can't happen -- and would be devastating to their broader legislative efforts.

But Democratic leaders haven't laid out the next steps to prevent one in the face of the GOP blockade, and the clock is ticking. Moments like this are ripe for procedural mishaps that lead the chambers to stumble into a shut down.

There's a strategy behind that decision -- a clear effort to ensure Republicans got the headlines for blocking government funding and a debt limit suspension, rather than stepping on them with their latest plan.

"I want to make sure everyone understands exactly what has happened here on the Senate floor," Schumer said after the vote went down. "The Republican Party has now become the party of default, the party that says America doesn't pay its debts."

That posture will shift quickly on Tuesday, according to sources, as Democrats quickly put together the legislation to fund the government beyond Thursday. The question, of course, remains for long.

A House out of order?

Pelosi doesn't have control of her caucus right now. That's not to say things don't come together Thursday when a bill comes to the floor. That's not to say that even if Thursday slips by without consensus, Biden's entire agenda is toast.

It's just to say that progressives are flexing muscle right now that we haven't really seen them do before. They are getting comfortable resisting the wishes of the speaker and the President and the normal speeches about sticking together and doing it for the agenda aren't really having an effect on the left flank. In interviews with members and aides, it's clear that progressives are feeling like they have given enough since Biden took office, and they are legitimately worried that helping pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill Thursday will take all of the leverage off the table to get the bigger $3.5 trillion social safety net bill that includes priorities many members have been working on for decades.

But don't forget that Pelosi has pulled a lot of rabbits out of a lot of hats before.

"Speaker Pelosi is always confident because she is a magical legislator who can get the votes," Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, said yesterday.

There's a reason Biden has implicit, to the point of deferential, trust in how Pelosi operates, according to officials. The track record speaks for itself.

Pelosi's pitch last night

In her private remarks, Pelosi made clear she has to change course from her previous plan to pass reconciliation and bipartisan infrastructure together. Let's be clear: this is a plain reversal. No other way around it. And it's significant. Not because it's surprising. It was always going to be faster to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill that already had the backing of every Democratic senator than it was going to be to pull the bigger bill together that included major pieces to which moderates Sinema and Manchin were opposed.

What Pelosi said, per a source in the room: "I told all of you that we wouldn't go on to the BIF (until) we had the reconciliation bill passed by the Senate. We were right on schedule to do all of that, until 10 days ago, a week ago, when I heard the news that this number had to come down. It all changed, so our approach had to change. It isn't about diminishing the importance of the reconciliation."

For some progressives in the room, Pelosi's remarks were a public admittance of what they already feared. And that could have the effect of further driving progressives away from voting "yes" on the bipartisan infrastructure proposal on Thursday.

So how unified can progressives stay?

This group isn't a monolith. They never have been. The so-called "Squad" operates independently at times from the broader progressive caucus. There are members in the progressive caucus who have already signaled they are going to vote "yes" on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, like Rep. Ro Khanna of California, an important bellwether here.

The warning has been there are dozens of progressives willing to vote "no" on the bipartisan infrastructure bill and that may very well be the case. But even as Rep. Pramila Japayal of Washington and other well-known members on the left continue to hold firm in their position that they won't vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill until they see a vote in the Senate on the bigger package, remember that they don't speak for the entirety of the liberal wing of the caucus,

The tell

A close read of Pelosi's letter to her colleagues Sunday night made pretty clear where this was headed.

"Tomorrow, September 27, we will begin debate on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework on the Floor of the House and vote on it on Thursday, September 30, the day on which the surface transportation authorization expires," she wrote.

To be clear here, short-term extensions of surface transportation reauthorizations is not out of the norm and there's no reason leadership couldn't pursue one here. But that move was never made, making Thursday -- the scheduled day for the infrastructure bill -- a cliff of sorts. Or, in this case, a trigger that adds another layer of pressure onto Democratic lawmakers threatening to sink the bill.

Some progressives told CNN on Monday, with some frustration, that it serves as an empty threat due to reserves and the fact there have been lapses in the past. But it unquestionably ramps up the stakes in terms of how the vote is framed, both politically and as an off-ramp for a leadership team desperately needing to de-link the infrastructure bill from the economic and climate package.

Another behind closed doors moment

Pelosi's contention that she learned 10 days ago the topline would have to come down and therefore the strategy would have to shift is questionable in the sense that Manchin and Sinema have been clear for more than a month they wouldn't accept $3.5 trillion.

But it also mirrors roughly the time Biden and his top advisers became resigned to the fact that the package would need to be scaled back, possibly by a significant amount, in order to have a pathway forward, according to multiple people involved.

The reason: Biden's private meetings two weeks ago with Sinema and Manchin, according to those people. While details of the meetings range somewhere between sparse and none, one thing Biden took away from the meeting was the seriousness of the concerns about the topline number, and that it wouldn't be resolved with minor tweaks or reductions, one of the people said.

The Sinema factor

This is actually instructive from the perspective of how Sinema operates. Few questions have been asked more on Capitol Hill in recent days, including between some of the most senior Democrats in the Senate, than: "Do you know where Sinema stands?"

The answer is, inevitably, no.

Sinema has been public about her opposition to the $3.5 trillion topline. Her concerns about tax increases have been clear (though not nearly as concrete a have been reported, sources say.)

Beyond that, her interview with the home state Arizona Republic served as the most fulsome public view into her thinking (and it wasn't that fulsome, though the story was very good).

She operates in private -- dozens of meeting with individual members, including a phone call with Jayapal on Monday.

But she also speaks more with Biden than almost any other member not named Pelosi or Schumer.

That doesn't mean they're on the phone daily or even weekly. But it's clear, according to people involved, if she needs to talk to Biden he'll be on the phone immediately.

The White House takes great care to ensure the details of those conversations don't become public. Sinema, as is her way, does the same. It's created a level of a trust between the two -- one developed over the course of the entire time Biden's been in office.

People with knowledge of the relationship are careful to be clear that it shouldn't be overstated. It's not like the two are BFFs and they have different approaches to politics. But they do have a relationship -- one that is exceedingly important at this moment.

The best window

Biden said something that made folks on social media chuckle on Monday, but is actually a really good window into how he's viewing things.

When asked how he would measure success by the end of this week, this was his response: "Well, it may not be by the end of the week. I hope it's by the end of the week. But as long as we're still alive..."

He then shifted direction on his thought into what they were facing and how "the country is gonna be in great shape" if they get things across the finish line.

But before he shifted direction -- "as long as we're still alive" -- is, based on how several of his top advisers have described his thinking at this point, really how he sees things at the moment.

Keep members talking. Don't let negotiations fall apart. Address issues, one by one, as they come.

But mostly keep people talking. Do that, and the combination of necessity and politics will, eventually, lead to an outcome.

That's led to some frustration on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue because Biden hasn't taken any clear hard lines with any members of factions inside the party. That time may come, officials concede. But it's not there yet.

The Biden/Schumer/Pelosi call

Biden, Pelosi and Schumer are speaking pretty much a daily basis at this point. Details are held close to the vest, but one person with knowledge of the calls said they range "from updates about the state of play, to strategy sessions to rundowns of who needs to talk to who."

On Monday, that included clear agreement on Pelosi's decision to announce behind closed doors that the two measures needed to be separated was both discussed and agreed upon by all three, according to the person.

"The only way to do this is in a unified manner," the person said.

The Senate GOP counter-programming

Republican leaders are whipping votes right now against the bipartisan infrastructure package, arguing behind the scenes that a vote for that bill will only make it easier for Democrats to pass their bigger social safety net bill, which repeals major pieces of their 2017 tax law.

But, that argument isn't going to convince everyone. And GOP leaders are competing with some Republican senators who are running their own campaign to drive up the GOP votes for the BIF on Thursday. Recall that memo circulating by Republican senators last week that laid out the myths some Republican leaders were peddling on the bill.

Several GOP senators have privately been having conversations with their House counterparts. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, said she is among them. She also expressed some displeasure with GOP leaders whipping against a bill she worked hard to craft.

"I wish they'd be more helpful toward the BIF," Capito said.

Right now, aides close to this process tell CNN they expect between a dozen to 15 GOP votes. That's not enough to make up for a mass exodus of progressives, but it would be enough to make up the difference if just a dozen or so progressives broke ranks.

The Trump factor

In the last several days, one of the emerging and most convincing arguments to members on the fence about what to do Thursday is a feeling that doing nothing isn't an option.

For some members, doing nothing isn't an option for their own re-elections. For some, they want to be a team player and support the President.

And former President Donald Trump is also becoming a factor for some members. There is growing fear among Democratic members that doing nothing will enable a return of Trump. If Democrats fail because of intraparty squabbles or letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough for right now, they could find themselves on the tail end of a campaign message that Democrats are ineffective and that could pave the way back for Trump.

"The consequences of us failing are very severe. Not just for our party, not just for this President, but for Democracy itself," Khanna said on CNN last night,


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