Dems' new reconciliation chant: Where's Joe Biden?

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

It beats the other chant sweeping the nation, but not by much, considering the audience. There are all sorts of leaks coming out of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses over frustration with a rudderless White House and an MIA Joe Biden. “Where’s Joe Biden?” they’re beginning to ask.

Welcome to the party, pal:

And for many Democrats in Congress, finalizing a deal now rests mainly on the shoulders of one man: Biden, whom lawmakers want to take a forceful public role in outlining what he wants to see in the final package. The increased focus on the President comes as worries are growing in both the West Wing and on Capitol Hill that dragging talks out into November could end in a stalemate and ultimately doom their prospects going into next year’s midterm elections.

Not only that, they say, but it could deepen the sense among voters that Biden can’t deliver on the core promise of his presidency — that he would be able to get government to actually work.

“You don’t want to get to a point,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat running for his state’s open Senate seat next year who’s concerned about the political impact of an extended impasse, “where we look so indecisive that it can’t be repaired with the package that’s going to pass and start impacting people’s lives.”

Privately, Democrats are growing frustrated with Biden’s approach. “The reality right now is that a lot of people are saying, ‘Where’s Joe Biden? This is his agenda, why isn’t he more involved in the negotiations?'” said one House Democrat, reflecting conversations going on among rank-and-file members.

Even when Biden’s present, he apparently makes matters worse rather than better. Biden floated a trial balloon for the topline of the reconciliation bill, a dramatic cut from $3.5 trillion to somewhere between $1.9-2.2 trillion. However, that apparently came as a surprise to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, neither of whom signed off on that topline, nor had they even been consulted on it. After Sinema insisted on seeing the full proposal and addressing it as a starting point for negotiations, Democrats wondered what the White House was thinking:

Some Democrats are perplexed. “Why would the President propose that number without having Manchin and Sinema on board?” one Democratic member said. “There seems to be a pretty big miscalculation by the White House.”

The entire reconciliation bill is a big miscalculation. Joe Biden wanted to be FDR and LBJ and get credit for passing a massive social-engineering bill, pushed into that position by progressive activists in his caucuses. However, Biden didn’t have anywhere near the mandate or the congressional majorities to pull it off. He failed to consult the non-progressives in his caucus to see what they would be willing to support, and still appears to be dictating terms rather than entering into meaningful dialogue with Manchin and Sinema — and likely a few other Democrats in both chambers who are presently keeping their heads below the horizon.

Manchin’s trying to set down his requirements for the bill, but thus far it seems no one wants to negotiate seriously:

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has told the White House the child tax credit must include a firm work requirement and family income cap in the $60,000 range, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: While Manchin’s demands would dramatically weaken one of President Biden’s signature programs to help working families, they also would reduce the package’s overall costs.

That would make it easier for the pivotal senator to support a final package, potentially higher than Manchin’s previous $1.5 trillion top line. At the same time, progressives would have a hard time accepting the changes Manchin is demanding.

Sinema has made it clear that she won’t vote at all unless the House passes the bipartisan infrastructure bill first. Progressives are refusing to allow it, which means that the entire enterprise is doomed. And in this case again, having Biden around made matters worse. Rather than urge progressives to take the W on the bipartisan bill as expected, Biden crossed up the moderates — and the Republicans who had been expected to help pass the bipartisan bill — by declaring the two bills linked. Sinema responded by publicly insisting that all bills should be considered on their own merits and that passing the first bill was her prerequisite to even negotiating on the second.

Biden poured gasoline on the fire, and apparently hasn’t been heard from much since then. Unless one side budges, there aren’t enough votes to pass either bill, and right now no one seems inclined to budge at all, or at least in any meaningful manner. That’s what happens when leadership plays checkers in a three-dimensional chess game.

One does have to wonder how long it will take for “Where’s Joe Biden” to morph into the the euphemistic “Let’s Go Brandon” — even for Democrats. Here’s where it all started, just in case you missed it last week.