An upbeat Biden ignores stalled agenda in Dem pep talk

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But Biden’s nearly 45-minute pep talk to House Democrats on Friday offered zero clue on how the leader of the party thought it should use its next nine months of unified government, including whether to revive his domestic agenda package that has been dead since Christmas. As House Democrats frantically search for another piece of legislation to make their case to voters, Biden applied more pressure, calling the midterms the “most important off-year election in modern history.”

At the exact same time, hundreds of miles away, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), gave Democrats a reality check: “There is no Build Back Better,” he told an energy conference in Houston.

Biden spoke to House Democrats in Philadelphia as part of a two-day retreat, where lawmakers huddled in closed-door sessions with top administration officials and allies as they hashed out their differences, looking for a clear election pitch for the party.

But Biden’s lack of direction in the much-anticipated speech is likely to leave many House Democrats unsatisfied after weeks of rising angst over inflation and their president’s sagging approval ratings — all with their majority on the line. And many members’ frustrations only intensified this week after a pair of high-profile policy spats with the White House: one on the details of a huge Covid relief package, and another on a Russian trade bill.

“Nancy, I drove her crazy,” Biden said, describing the contentious back-and-forth between the White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi over a measure to revoke trade status with Russia. The House had planned to vote on the policy this week, but will instead consider it next week after the White House urged party leaders to pull it out of their bill. “I know you wanted to do it, initially,” Biden conceded.

Going into the multiday gathering, many Democrats privately said they wanted Biden to offer a clear objective. It’s been roughly 100 days since the House passed the enormous “Build Back Better” only to watch Manchin tank it in the evenly divided Senate. Democratic senators have begun taking baby steps toward reviving at least some pieces of Biden’s agenda — a drug pricing reform that has been hailed by Manchin — but there’s no certainty about where it could go next.

Biden did acknowledge that he wants to do more, calling on Congress to cap the cost of child care and to fix the broken tax code, both pieces of that House-passed bill. But he said nothing about what a new version of that bill should look like, or how he would persuade Manchin to support it. In fact, he offered even less detail than he did in his State of the Union address last week.

“Look, we have an ambitious agenda. So let’s go get it done,” Biden said, ticking off additional priorities like voting rights, climate change, gun violence, criminal justice reform that also have gone nowhere in the narrowly divided Congress.

Moments before Biden spoke, Pelosi addressed the caucus and touted the party’s wins on both the pandemic aid package and the infrastructure bill. But she noted that Biden has said he wants Democrats to do more for their “vision to America.”

“We have other initiatives being set forward,” Pelosi said.

Biden received perhaps the most applause on Ukraine. He pledged to make sure Ukraine had the weapons necessary to defend itself and to welcome Ukrainian refugees “with open arms,” to praise from lawmakers, many of whom had called on him to lift an annual cap on refugees to accommodate the Ukrainians.

The escalating conflict in Ukraine has been a rare point of unity not just among Democrats, but between both parties in Congress. Days earlier, the House passed a roughly $14 billion emergency package that included humanitarian and military aid, which the Senate sent to Biden’s desk Thursday night. The House also cleared a bill to ban imports of Russian oil, with nearly every member of both parties voting in favor.

The Russian invasion was a major point of discussion at the retreat, including a Thursday night event with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, which one lawmaker described as “intense.”

One of the most pressing problems at home, though, will be the war’s effect on gas prices here — already a huge political problem for Democrats. And Biden offered some advice to Democrats on how to explain increased gas costs on the stump going into the midterms.

“Democrats didn’t cause this problem,” Biden said. “Vladimir Putin did.”

Catherine Morehouse contributed to this report.

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