As Biden Pivots, Democrats Seek to Salvage His Domestic Agenda

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday was the start of an election-year push to reframe his domestic agenda away from the sweeping aspirations of his first year in office and toward more practical and politically appealing goals: driving down rising prices, controlling the pandemic, addressing crime.

Gone were the expansive warnings about the “existential threat” of climate change, explicit promises to advance “racial equity” in infrastructure projects and even the name of his $2.2 trillion Build Back Better package of social welfare and climate spending, once promoted as a transformative initiative akin to the Great Society programs of the 1960s. Instead, Mr. Biden described his agenda as a solution to the “rising cost of food, gas, housing,” pivoting to more centrist language in a nod to disaffected moderate Democrats who have pushed for their party to focus on the daily concerns of voters ahead of midterm elections they are expected to lose.

But while Mr. Biden changed his message, he spent much of his speech calling on Congress to resurrect pieces of his stalled domestic agenda, including expanding child care, lowering prescription drug prices and a minimum wage raise proposal that faltered in the Senate early in his term. And it was not clear how successful Mr. Biden would be in salvaging pieces of the social policy package, which fell apart late last year amid opposition from key moderates in his party.

There were glimmers of hope on Wednesday for reviving some aspects of Mr. Biden’s plan. Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the centrist Democrat who abruptly ended talks over the sprawling spending plan in December, outlined the broad strokes of a package he could support, after weeks of declining to discuss details.

And Mr. Biden continued his rebranding effort during a trip on Wednesday to Duluth, Minn., to promote the bipartisan infrastructure package, framing his plan as a way of providing economic relief for struggling families.

“These guys talk about how they’re always worried about spending,” Mr. Biden said, in what appeared to be a reference to moderate holdouts and Republicans. “We’re lowering the deficit.”

Vulnerable Democrats who for months have fretted privately that the president’s expansive spending plans were not resonating with their constituents said they were relieved about the pivot.

“One of our issues this past fall was we were treating legislation like a Christmas tree, and everyone’s favorite bauble got to get on the tree,” said Representative Elissa Slotkin, Democrat of Michigan, who welcomed Mr. Biden’s focus on fighting inflation, supply-chain and veterans issues. “What we heard last night, without using these exact words was, ‘My agenda is now more prioritized’ — and the priorities overlapped with what people are talking about in my district.”

On Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Mr. Manchin offered some new detail about how he would seek to narrow Mr. Biden’s agenda. In an interview with Politico, and later in comments to reporters, Mr. Manchin said Democrats should first raise revenue by undoing some of the 2017 Republican tax law and approving legislation to lower the cost of prescription drugs. From there, he said, the money should be used to both reduce the deficit and fund at least one major Democratic priority over a decade.

“Half of that money should be dedicated to fighting inflation and reducing the deficit, the other half you can pick for a 10-year program — whatever you think is the highest priority,” Mr. Manchin told reporters, noting that several of his colleagues wanted to focus on combating climate change.

“Everybody knows pretty much where I am,” he added. “If they’re not serious about inflation and debt, then you know, it’d be hard for me to negotiate.”

It remained unclear whether all Democrats would rally behind such a plan, a virtual necessity with their razor-thin majorities. It could alienate progressives, abandoning huge programs that they have championed. And it could also meet resistance from Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, another Democratic centrist, who has balked at increasing tax rates for corporations and wealthy individuals, one result of rolling back the 2017 tax law.

A spokeswoman, Hannah Hurley, suggested that Ms. Sinema’s stance should be no impediment, because she had already embraced tax increases large enough to finance a “narrow plan.”

Many Democrats said that given the obstacles to Mr. Biden’s initial, far-reaching plan, they were ready to rally around a piecemeal approach of the sort Mr. Manchin laid out.

“I’ll take whatever works,” declared Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts. “There’s no way around the math, so we’ve got to find out what 50 of us can agree on.”

With all 50 Republicans opposed, all 50 senators who caucus with Democrats would have to support the proposal for it to pass with Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote in the evenly divided Senate.

The White House has fielded calls for months to distance the president from congressional wrangling and describe how his proposals would address the rising inflation stoking anxiety in his party and driving down his approval ratings. Mr. Biden’s top aides privately discussed whether the Build Back Better label had become a hindrance to negotiations, according to a senior administration official, who conceded that the final version of the package would look very different than the sprawling bill proposed last year.

Moderate Democrats said they appreciated what they saw as a concerted effort to connect with voters in their states and districts. By highlighting popular components of the larger bill without putting them under a single, sweeping title, Mr. Biden may have made them more palatable, they said.

“When I go back to the state of Montana, I hear about how people hate Build Back Better,” said Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana. “But then they say we need some help with child care, we need some help with housing, we need some help with elder care, we need to do something about climate change. So I think he struck the right tone.”

Democrats in politically competitive districts have called for Mr. Biden to focus more on modest proposals on crime, combating the pandemic and rising costs. A group of moderates had put together a lengthy list of bipartisan bills — “singles and doubles,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey — and presented them to the White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, as measures that could pass in rapid succession and send the message to voters that Washington can operate.

The group received a positive response from the White House, according to Ms. Slotkin, who welcomed Mr. Biden’s focus on inflation, supply-chain problems and veterans issues.

Mr. Biden’s top aides also saw the State of the Union as an opportunity to push back on cultural attacks from Republicans on crime and immigration. Moderate Democrats latched on to Mr. Biden’s mention of the need for improved security at the border and his long-held call to invest in police departments.

But a few liberal Democrats expressed frustration that the president not only glossed over some of their key priorities, such as student loan relief, but also devoted time to rejecting the slogan “defund the police,” which some of them have championed.

“It’s unnecessary — we don’t need to feed into this rhetoric and these attacks from Republicans,” said Representative Cori Bush, Democrat of Missouri, who remained seated in the House gallery as Republicans and Democrats jumped to their feet and applauded Mr. Biden’s declaration that “the answer is not to defund the police.”

“They don’t get to dictate to us what we need and how we can speak,” Ms. Bush said. “What we need to do is fix the problem.”

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