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Biden locked in ‘precarious’ talks to save landmark legislation

Joe Biden and congressional Democrats were locked in tense negotiations on Wednesday evening at what the White House called a “precarious and important time” for the US president’s sweeping legislative agenda.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, met Biden at the White House for crunch talks on the eve of what was expected to be a series of make-or-break votes for the president’s party.

“We are obviously at a precarious and important time in these discussions,” said Jen Psaki, White House press secretary. “Our objective here is to work towards unity . . . We’re not there yet.”

At risk are two separate pieces of legislation that Biden has staked his presidency on: a $1.2tn bipartisan infrastructure bill and a $3.5tn investment in America’s social safety net that is staunchly opposed by Republicans.

The passage of the bills through Congress has become inextricably linked and Democrats fear they will suffer a political backlash if they fail to pass them. In particular, they fret they will struggle in November’s hotly-contested Virginia governor’s race as well as in next year’s midterm elections, when control of both chambers of Congress will be up for grabs.

Earlier in the week, Pelosi vowed to hold a vote in the House on Thursday on the smaller infrastructure bill that would invest heavily in roads, bridges, tunnels and airports, which passed the Senate earlier this year with Republican support.

But late on Wednesday it remained unclear whether the Speaker had the votes to pass the legislation in the lower chamber of Congress, which Democrats control by a razor-thin eight-vote margin.

Biden and Pelosi made surprise appearances on Wednesday night at the congressional baseball game, an annual charity competition in Washington between Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Both the president and the Speaker were seen making animated mobile phone calls from the Democrats’ dugout while lawmakers took the field. Republicans won the seven-inning game, 13-12.

Dozens of progressive lawmakers have threatened to withhold their support until they receive assurances from Democratic senators on the right of the party — namely Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — that the larger budget package will not be watered down by the upper chamber of Congress.

Leftwing senator Bernie Sanders has urged his progressive colleagues in the House to vote “no” on the infrastructure package until the larger budget bill is passed.

However, Manchin poured cold water on progressives’ wishes on Wednesday night, issuing a lengthy statement saying he “can’t support $3.5tn more in spending when we have already spent $5.4tn since last March”.

“At some point, all of us, regardless of party must ask the simple question — how much is enough?” he added.

Sinema has not yet made her position on the larger bill clear. Asked on Wednesday what she would say to progressives who “don’t know where you are”, she curtly replied: “I’m in the Senate.”

The two senators wield outsized influence in the 100-member Senate because Democrats control the upper chamber by the narrowest of margins: 50-50, with vice-president Kamala Harris able to cast the tiebreaking vote. A defection from a single Democratic senator can therefore derail any piece of legislation.

Asked about Manchin’s latest intervention, Pramila Jayapal, the Democratic congresswoman who chairs the House progressive caucus, told reporters: “This is why we are not voting for that bipartisan bill until we get agreement on the [$3.5tn budget] reconciliation bill, and it is clear we have got a ways to go.”

The president’s legislative agenda is stuttering just as the administration contends with a string of other problems.

After a failed stand-off earlier this week with Republicans over a bill to fund the federal government and raise the debt ceiling, Pelosi and Schumer must now scramble to pass a “continuing resolution” to avert a government shutdown ahead of a Friday 12:01am deadline. They must also lift the government’s borrowing limit to avoid a feared default as soon as next month.

A continuing resolution — which would keep the government funded up to December — is likely to garner Republican support and pass both chambers of Congress on Thursday. But the debt ceiling debate remains unresolved, with Schumer continuing to rule out using a complex legislative procedure known as reconciliation to lift the borrowing limit without Republican support.

The White House was at pains to emphasise the need for compromise on Wednesday, with Psaki telling reporters: “I think it’s pretty clear we’re in the middle of a negotiation and that everybody’s going to have to give a little.”

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