Biden at CNN town hall: Medicare expansion, free community college likely out of social safety-net package

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WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden said Thursday he believes he's close to a deal with Democrats on multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure and social spending plans, the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, but confirmed it will require cutting key progressive priorities.

Biden pushed a scaled-down social safety net and climate package during a town hall broadcast on CNN of around $2 trillion, down from an original price tag of $3.5 trillion.

"I think so," Biden said when asked by CNN's Anderson Cooper whether he will get a deal on his "Build Back Better" agenda finalized, adding that it boils down to solving about "four or five" unresolved issues.

But throughout the 90-minute forum, Biden acknowledged roadblocks to several of his signature proposals posed by two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. He repeatedly singled them out by name, lifting the curtain on private negotiations that have dragged on for months.

"She will not raise a single penny on the corporate side or on wealthy people. Period," Biden said of Sinema, referring to his plan to raise taxes on corporations and high-income earners to pay for his proposed spending.

Medicare expansion 'a reach,' Biden optimistic about climate

Biden called it a "reach" to secure funding for Medicare expansion to cover hearing, dental and vision – a top priority of many liberals. "Here's the thing: Mr. Manchin is opposed to that. And I think Mrs. Sinema is as well."

Biden said tuition-free community college, which carries a cost of $109 billion, would likely be cut out as well. "Mr. Manchin and one other person has indicated they will not support free community college," he said, though vowing to get free community college passed in Congress "in the next several years."

And the president said his $225 billion plan for three-month paid family and medical leave would be cut by one-third. "It is down to four weeks. The reason it's down to four weeks is I can't get 12 weeks."

With Republicans uniformly opposed to Biden's social-spending agenda, Biden needs support of all 50 Democratic senators in the evenly divided Senate to pass the legislation through a process called reconciliation. It's given an outsized role to Manchin and Sinema, the two Democrats who have balked at the cost.

"Joe's not a bad guy," Biden said of Manchin. "He's a friend."

Biden is also seeking approval of a bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill focused on rebuilding roads and bridges.

The infrastructure bill already passed the Senate with support of Republicans and Democrats. But progressive Democrats in the House have warned they will not vote for infrastructure unless the Senate first approves the more expansive reconciliation package.

In a sign of hope for progressives, who have pushed for climate initiatives to remain in the bill, Biden said his proposed clean electricity performance program has not been ruled out by Manchin. The program would offer tax incentives to fossil fuel companies that transition to clean energy and penalize that don't.

"Nothing has been formally agreed to," Biden said, insisting that Manchin, who comes from a coal-heavy state, is open to offering tax incentives for companies that shift to clean energy, but not penalizing them. "Joe is open to my convincing him."

The public forum came at a pivotal moment for Biden, who is working behind the scenes to satisfy progressive and moderate Democrats jockeying over the final price tag of the social spending package before a self-imposed deadline to reach a deal and pass the separate infrastructure bill by Oct. 31.

Delivering on both could provide a tailwind for Democrats as they head into congressional battles with Republicans over raising the debt limit and funding the government as well as in nearby Virginia, where a hotly contested governor's race has become a national barometer ahead of next year's midterm elections.

But time is running out for the president, who is set to travel overseas at the end of the month for the Group of 20 summit in Rome before appearing at the United Nations' climate change conference, where he'll have to convince allies the U.S. is on track to pass his climate-driven agenda.

"He needs to keep moving the pieces along, and that's hard to do when you're abroad," said John Podesta, a top aide to former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. "There's got to be clarity of what the framework is and what the path forward is. It's time to land the plane."

President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe at the Lubber Run Community Center on July 22, 2021, in Arlington, Virginia.
President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe at the Lubber Run Community Center on July 22, 2021, in Arlington, Virginia.

Inside v. outside game

Earlier this week Biden ramped up efforts to hasten negotiations by hosting two separate groups representing the party's progressive and moderate wings at the White House. The president also met individually with Sinema and Manchin this week.

"He's been running both an inside game and an outside game to pass these reforms," said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson. "Once the plan is crystalized the focus can begin to shift to showing the American people what the plan does and how it lowers costs."

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White House officials have pointed to accelerated negotiations this week as a sign of progress and that a framework is taking shape. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chair of the House Progressive Caucus, told reporters following Tuesday's meeting with Biden that they settled on a topline number between $1.9 trillion and $2.2 million.

But as Democrats haggle over their differences, Biden is moving beyond the Beltway discussions to remind Americans of his broadly popular proposals that have been tangled up in Washington's political tug-of-war, according to Ferguson.

The president traveled to Connecticut last week to champion his child care plan and visited his childhood hometown of Scranton, Penn., on Wednesday to deliver remarks on how his working class upbringing has shaped the policies outlined in his domestic agenda.

President Joe Biden walks with Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., from Marine One to board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. Biden is traveling to his hometown of Scranton, Pa., to talk about infrastructure and his domestic agenda. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) ORG XMIT: MDSW307
President Joe Biden walks with Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., from Marine One to board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. Biden is traveling to his hometown of Scranton, Pa., to talk about infrastructure and his domestic agenda. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) ORG XMIT: MDSW307

"I ran for president saying it’s time to rebuild the backbone of the nation," Biden said during a speech at the Electric Trolley Museum. "I couldn't have been any clearer. That's why I wrote both these bills in the first place."

The president added that despite the "attacks and misinformation," his plans are still "overwhelmingly supported by the American people."

A messaging moment

Internal Democratic feuding over Biden's economic agenda has dominated headlines in recent weeks. And while many of his proposals remain popular across the country, Americans appear unclear on what exactly his plans entail.

A CBS News/YouGov poll released earlier this month found 54% of Americans approve of Biden's "Build Back Better" plan but just 10% of respondents said they know "a lot of the specifics." While some provisions like lowering Medicare drug prices or coverage for dental, vision and hearing are overwhelmingly popular, only 40% of respondents said they had heard about these provisions of the spending package.

Biden's proposals are "popular when segmented and tested in a poll, but the public clearly doesn't have a good sense of what's in the whole package," Podesta said. "I think the format is a perfect opportunity to make real what the polices are, what the strategies are and where he thinks progress needs to be made and why his program is going to help people still struggling in the economy."

The administration had initially planned to fan out Cabinet officials across the country to sell Biden's agenda over the summer, but the strategy was obscured by the resurging COVID-19 delta variant and the fallout from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. While Biden continued to pitch his agenda throughout the fall, the focus on Democratic disputes derailed plans to pass the infrastructure bill in September.

The stalled negotiations have frustrated Democratic candidates like former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is facing Republican Glenn Youngkin in an unexpectedly tight race for the Virginia governor's mansion on Nov. 2 that could portend a rocky road for vulnerable Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections.

Biden's popularity, too, has slipped as his agenda flounders on Capitol Hill. A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday found Biden's approval rating had dropped to 37%, an all-time low and a percentage point lower from the group's poll taken on Oct. 6.

The town hall gives Biden a chance to communicate that his plan addresses the major pain points in Americans' lives - on child care, paid leave or high drug prices - as well as his broader vision for climate change and how that could create jobs and transform the economy, Podesta said.

"It's a chance to humanize what is a big, broad program that I think people truly don't really understand the details of," Podesta said. "It's a natural forum for him to take, and it breaks out of the inside Washington story and back to what's important to people, which is how you're going to improve their lives."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: CNN town hall: Biden pitches agenda as Virginia governor's race looms

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