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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden began this week saying "victory is what's at stake" as two bills defining his domestic agenda collided in Congress.
But after days of intense negotiations failed to bridge an agreement heading into the weekend, Biden faces increasing pressure to show that Democrats can deliver.
Biden has proposed the most sweeping domestic legislation in decades –trillions of dollars in spending that seeks to transform the economy. His push to dramatically expand the social safety-net and pass major climate initiatives has drawn comparisons to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society.
But to get it done, work remains to unite all Democrats in Congress – including convincing progressive Democrats that passing smaller package is better than nothing at all. Experts say if the pair of bills is successful, it would not only be a needed win for Biden, who has struggled in recent polls, but it could be a boost to Democrats in upcoming elections.
"In the end, your legacy is determined by what you actually do, not the way something is spun, but what you actually accomplish," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "So the larger the amount, presumably the more that would be done and attributed to the Biden administration."
Biden to progressives: Must come down from $3.5 trillion
With his legacy teetering, Biden came to Capitol Hill Friday afternoon to help broker a deal between House moderates who wanted immediate passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill and progressives who are holding up the bill in exchange for an iron-clad commitment on a multi-trillion-dollar bill to expand social safety-net programs.
Biden expressed confidence Congress will approve both of his major priorities. Progressive House Democrats relayed that Biden told them to be willing to come down from their demands for a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package.
“We’re going to get this done,” the president told reporters as he left. "Doesn't matter when. It doesn't matter whether it's in six minutes, six days or six weeks. We're going to get it done."
Getting it done could be significant for Biden.
Nine months into his presidency, Biden is experiencing declining approval ratings that, for the first time, saw the majority of Americans disapprove of his job performance. Most recently, as COVID-19 cases surged, Biden was criticized for a chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan and a surge of Haitian migrants that gathered at the southern border, leading to a violent confrontation with border agents.
Republicans have seized on the struggles, previewing a line of attack in the 2022 midterm elections when Democrats face an uphill battle to retain control of the Senate and House. Sabato said that the fumbling for a deal may cost Democrat Terry McAuliffe's bid to retake the governor's mansion in Virginia next month.
"This has been humiliating, embarrassing, day after day," Sabato said. "It has created the image that Democrats cannot get it together. Biden and both houses ... If they don't deliver in the next few days. I think McAuliffe's in real trouble."
'He needs a win here'
Biden next week plans to “travel across the country” to sell his “Build Back Better” plan, the White House said Friday. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the tour is not a concession a deal can’t get done over the weekend.
“It is conveying that the president's going to have to continue to go out there and make the case to the public about what is in these packages, no matter when it passes,” she said.
On Sunday, the White House announced Biden would visit Howell, Michigan, on Tuesday. Any further trips are still unclear.
If Biden fails to rally the support of fellow Democrats behind proposals that usually unite the party – climate, taxing corporations, child care and other social welfare programs – then Democrats risk undermining their own electoral hopes in 2022.
"He needs a win here – he needs something," said Todd Belt, professor and political management program director at George Washington University. "He needs Democrats to be able to go back to their districts and their states in 2022 for reelections in order to show that they performed."
Belt said Biden campaigned on being the "adult in the room" – the "tried and true politician" who could get things done after four years under former President Donald Trump.
"It's really critical that he get something for the American people to show that he can govern," Belt said.
White House: 'Historic' legislation no matter the price tag
Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona remain the Senate holdouts of Biden's $3.5 trillion social safety-net and climate package. In the Senate, Biden needs the votes of all 50 Democratic members to pass the bill in a procedure known as reconciliation, but the two moderate senators have said they won't support a price tag that high.
"While I am hopeful that common ground can be found that would result in another historic investment in our nation, I cannot – and will not – support trillions in spending or an all or nothing approach that ignores the brutal fiscal reality our nation faces," said Manchin, who said he's unwilling to go above $1.5 trillion.
Meanwhile, progressive House Democrats have refused to support Biden's other domestic agenda plank – a bipartisan infrastructure bill with $550 billion in new spending – unless the more expansive reconciliation package moves forward.
Biden has touted his proposals as "generational investments" to help the U.S. compete against China. But cutting the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package would mean scaling back legislation packed with liberal priorities on climate, child care, prekindergarten, free community college and national paid leave.
“It’s going to be tough,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash, the head of the House Progressive Caucus, relaying the challenge from Biden to compromise on the top figure. “We’re going to have to come down on our number.”
Psaki said the two sides are "closer to an agreement than ever" and agreeing on a dollar-figure.
"Some have come down, some have come up in the numbers," said Psaki, though she stopped short of saying whether Biden would agree to Manchin's $1.5 trillion ceiling.
She sought to assure that whatever is passed will be transformational.
"No matter where we end if we can get something done here, we're going to have a historic piece of legislation passed Congress that's going to have a huge impact on the American people," she said.
Biden's priorities face tough road compared to other big bills
Although Biden's proposed spending is a lower share of the U.S. economy than Roosevelt's New Deal programs, it marks a return to social-safety net investments that for decades defined the Democratic Party.
The infrastructure bill, which passed the Senate in August with bipartisan support, includes $109 billion for repairs to roads and bridges, $66 billion for passenger and freight rail, $49 billion for public transit and $25 billion for airports. There's $73 billion for electric and power infrastructure, $65 billion for broadband expansion and $55 billion for water and sewer projects.
The more expansive reconciliation package, loaded with liberal priorities, consists of what Biden has called "human infrastructure."
That includes $250 billion for expanded caregiving for the disabled and elderly, $200 billion for universal prekindergarten, $225 billion for subsidized child care, free community college, national paid family leave and extended child tax credits. There's also an assortment of environmental initiatives, led by a new clean energy standard forcing power companies to gradually shift from emitting carbon monoxide and incentives for clean energy such as wind and power.
It would be an achievement rivalling FDR's New Deal and Johnson's Great Society but threaded through a much narrower needle because of the razor-thin margins Democrats hold in the House – where they can't afford more than three defections – and the evenly divided Senate – where they can't lose a single member – Sabato said.
"Whatever Biden gets through Congress looms larger in his legacy because it's been much more difficult for him," he said. "When Roosevelt submitted a big piece of his New Deal program in the beginning, one congressman stood up and said, 'I don't want to hear any debate, the house is on fire and the president United States says this is the way to put out the fire.' Boom! They passed it. I mean they didn't have a chance to read it."
Although Biden doesn't have that luxury, the White House said it's just part of the process.
"It's healthy to have discussions. It's healthy to push. It's healthy to be out there advocating for your point of view," Psaki said. "I think there's a misunderstanding of how a democracy and policy-making works."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Infrastructure, budget bill outcome may be 'critical' for Biden, 2022