President Joe Biden’s CNN town hall on Thursday night was pitched as a venue for him to discuss and sell his ambitious social spending package to the viewing public. But his performance seemed crafted for an audience of two.
Biden spent the first portion of the evening in Baltimore not only confirming the various concessions he is likely to make in order to pass his Build Back Better agenda. He also discussed in notable specifics the areas where he is finding disagreement with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.)
It was a change in approach, right as negotiations on the reconciliation package enter their 11th hour. The president has been working furiously behind the scenes to bring together a divided Democratic Party, meeting repeatedly with lawmakers from all corners of the left. On Thursday, he went public, placing a spotlight on the two main holdouts even as he downplayed disagreements and even praised their negotiating skills.
“Joe’s not a bad guy. He’s a friend,” he said of Manchin, while talking about the difficulty in coming to an agreement with him on expanding Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing benefits. “I think it’s a good idea. But here’s the thing. Mr. Manchin is opposed to that.”
“And I think Senator Sinema is, as well,” Biden said, adding that hearing benefits were important to the senator. The president said he believed he’d be able to address these issues without changing Medicare.
Biden also called Sinema “smart as the devil” and “very supportive of the environmental agenda in my legislation.” But, he hastened to add, “she will not raise a single penny on taxes for the corporate side and or on wealthy people.”
After the fact, a White House aide clarified: “The President was referring to the challenge of having the votes to move forward on raising the corporate rate, not to the ability to raise revenue through a range of other tax fairness proposals which Senator Sinema supports.”
The remarks nevertheless effectively placed the two senators at center stage. And they suggest that the White House is still having difficulty coming to final agreements on key items and might be eager to see Democratic voters intensify the pressure campaigns on them to get on board.
Biden name-checked the West Virginia senator again when asked about the clean energy protection program, another component Manchin has opposed, before laying out alternatives for gaining his support.
“Joe Manchin’s argument is, ‘Look, we still have coal in my state, you’re going to eliminate it eventually, we know it’s going away, we know it’s going to be gone, but don’t rush it so fast that my people don’t have anything to do,’” the president said. “I think that’s not what we should be doing. But the fact of the matter is we can take that 150 billion, add it to the 320 billion that’s in the law now that he’s prepared to support for tax incentives.”
But Biden emphasized that no concessions had been made for Manchin to have coal in his state. “Nothing has been formally agreed to,” he said.
Biden said that negotiators had only four or five items left on which they had disagreements. He also outlined the compromises that had been reached to get to this point. A paid-leave provision would be reduced in size to four weeks, and the final deal would not include funding for tuition-free community college.
“I do think I’ll get a deal,” he said of his sweeping economic package, adding that he thought the negotiations were close to wrapping.
“Look, I was a senator for 370 years,” Biden said, drawing laughter. “I was … relatively good at putting together deals.”
Biden took the stage before an invitation-only, fully vaccinated audience. The president faced a friendly and responsive crowd, often being interrupted by loud cheers and laughter as he dropped new hints about the state of negotiations.
At other points in the town hall, he spoke about his eagerness to move forward on other legislative topics like police reform and voting rights. And he conceded that he couldn’t embrace filibuster reform now, not because of philosophical opposition to it but because it would complicate his legislative agenda.
“If, in fact, I get myself into at this moment the debate on the filibuster, I lose at least three votes right to get what I have to get done on the economic side of the equation,” he said.
Biden later hinted that he would embrace rules reform in the Senate on items like raising the debt ceiling and, potentially, voting rights legislation if they didn’t move through the chamber.
“When it comes to voting rights, just so I’m clear, though, you would entertain the notion of doing away with the filibuster on that one issue, is that correct?” host Anderson Cooper asked.
“And maybe more,” Biden said.