WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden will meet with congressional Democrats starting late Wednesday in back-to-back private sessions as their party confronts the limits of its power in a newly divided Washington with its once sweeping agenda now effectively stalled.
Biden’s first meeting, with House Democrats at their retreat in Baltimore, comes as energized Republicans are on the verge of forcing the initial veto of his presidency — on a measure to limit the way private financial advisers promote “woke” investment options. That confrontation, among others, is a sign of how bipartisanship is giving way to a new era of oversight, investigations and conflict.
Without many new initiatives to propose, Biden is determined not to see the party backslide into bickering and disappointment. Instead, Democrats appear ready to focus on a Hippocratic oath-style strategy of doing no harm — playing up what they have accomplished so far while portraying Republicans as being led by extremists beholden to the Trump-era “Make America Great Again” agenda.
It’s a risky tack as both parties try to set the political narrative before the 2024 elections. Biden is expected to announce this spring whether he will seek a second term while Donald Trump is already campaigning in a growing field for the Republican nomination.
House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York told reporters earlier this week at the Capitol that the president “has a phenomenal track record of accomplishment and a vision for continuing to build out an economy that emphasizes the priorities and well-being of everyday Americans.” Jeffries said Democrats will remain “strongly unified” behind Biden and his agenda.
The challenges ahead are stark.
Congress must approve raising the $31 trillion debt limit this summer to avoid a financially devastating federal default. Economic uncertainty at home and the grinding war in Ukraine are testing America’s resolve. There are no easy answers to stubborn worries over the fentanyl crisis, climate change, gun violence and the lingering COVID-19 crisis.
Biden had success drawing Republicans to his side last year, when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate. He was able to sign into law bills on infrastructure investments, same-sex marriage protections and others issues.
While divided government can often be a time of bipartisan deal-making, Biden’s quieter agenda this new session of Congress, with the GOP in charge of the House, is almost destined to be mired in legislative gridlock.
Policy proposals from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy are slim, overpowered by the oversight and investigations that Republicans are undertaking to examine almost every aspect of Biden, his family and his administration.
On Wednesday, McCarthy, R-Calif., brought together parents who are backing a “parents’ bill of rights,” which would mandate that schools keep them informed of what children are being taught and how money is being spent.
McCarthy said in a brief interview ahead of Biden’s talk that he hopes the president pushes Democrats to act on several fronts — “on finding a place to secure the border, to make America energy independent. I hope he rallies along the parents’ bill of rights, making sure that we commit to a balanced budget.”
But Democrats are skeptical.
“It’s just it feels like the House Republicans don’t have any interest in governing,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told The Associated Press. “I don’t know what Joe Biden can do to try to put out the garbage fire seems to be the Republican majority right now.”
McCarthy has made some bipartisan inroads peeling off Democrats to support Republican-led measures, including a final Senate vote Wednesday to roll back a new rule set by the Department of Labor over the way asset managers consider climate change and “environmental, social and governance” factors in investments.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced he was joining Republicans in supporting the “ESG” measure, saying the rule was the latest example of “how the administration prioritizes a liberal policy agenda” over protecting the retirement accounts of pension investments. He said the rule could penalize the fossil fuel industry that’s important to his state.
The White House has said Biden would veto the bill.
The Labor Department rule ended a Trump-era ban on managers of these plans considering factors such as climate change or pending lawsuits when making investment choices. Because suits and climate change have financial repercussions, administration officials argue that their predecessors were courting possible disaster.
“You would have to pretend it’s not there, in the same way that the captain of the Titanic would have to ignore the iceberg had he seen it,” said Celeste Drake, deputy director of the White House National Economic Council.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana also voted for the measure, which already passed the House, and now goes to Biden’s desk for a veto.
A second bill from Republicans that could draw a veto may reach Biden next week. It targets the District of Columbia’s ability to govern itself by overturning a major rewrite of the criminal code that was passed by the City Council last year. The House has passed the legislation; the Senate is expected to follow suit.
Biden, meanwhile, is set to release his new budget proposal next week, a multitrillion-dollar blueprint that will serve as an opening salvo in negotiations with McCarthy as they try for a deal that could stave off a debt ceiling crisis this summer.
The president, in his talk to House Democrats on Wednesday and Senate Democrats on Thursday, will emphasize his promise to release his budget and will call on Republicans to do the same, according to a White House official.
Without McCarthy’s spending plan on the table, Biden has been eager to portray Republicans as ready to cut Medicare, Social Security and other popular programs as part of the GOP’s long-running effort to reduce federal spending and balance the budget.
Biden will use his remarks to Democrats to warn that Republicans will “trigger a catastrophic default” if they insist on cutting health care or other programs, said the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the private speech and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Not all Democrats will be on hand to hear Biden.
Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the House’s most progressive Democrats, told the AP that her absence was not a protest and that she had attended past retreats.
“It’s really important for the president to continue to stand behind every single progress that we’ve made and to talk about finishing the job,” Omar said.
Several Democrats said they remain optimistic that Biden can do what he is most known for — being a bipartisan bridge-builder.
“Government is divided, there’s no doubt about it,” said Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., who represents the president’s hometown Scranton-area district. “But remember, also, the President Biden loves to brag about his chops in pulling off bipartisan supported bills.” __
Associated Press writers Josh Boak, Seung Min Kim, Farnoush Amiri and Zeke Miller contributed to this report.