Biden heads to Europe at difficult moment for his domestic agenda


President Biden is headed to Europe on Wednesday, an inopportune time for his first foreign trip as president as his domestic priorities hit the rocks.

The president cut off infrastructure negotiations on Tuesday with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), who was the top GOP negotiator in the Senate on the issue, after their discussion on Friday left the sides far apart on key issues.

He instead will move forward on discussions with a bipartisan group of senators, who are separately preparing another infrastructure proposal of around roughly $880 billion, less than the top-line figure being discussed by Capito and below what the White House wants.  

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) separately sent a torpedo into the Democratic agenda by making it clear he has no intention of weakening the filibuster even if Republicans block Democratic legislation. He also announced his continued opposition to the For the People Act — sweeping voting rights legislation that Biden has touted as a top priority as GOP-led states pass restrictive voting measures. 

Democrats seem to not have a plan for how to handle Manchin and fellow centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), or a clear strategy for moving forward. 

That’s led to new calls for action from Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Biden — who will now have to manage and advise on the issues from afar as he meets with Western allies and prepares for a high-profile summit next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

“The optics are obviously not ideal. We’ll probably hear the press secretary and administration be purposeful in talking about how he’s still working, working the phone lines from afar, but the optics of leaving D.C. while D.C. is mired in gridlock is obviously not ideal,” said Casey Burgat, director of the legislative affairs program at George Washington University. 

The pressure on Biden to move forward on different phases of his agenda comes as he is eager to make a strong impression with foreign leaders that American foreign policy is shifting from the Trump years. 

While Biden has meetings set up over the next several days with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Putin, White House officials said the president’s domestic agenda won’t take a backseat. 

“Any White House is pretty well practiced in continuing to operate and work on domestic issues while they’re traveling overseas. And I expect the president will remain engaged on the American Jobs Plan, even as he’s overseas meeting with a number of global counterparts,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

That said, Biden has made a point of holding in-person meetings, hoping a personal touch can help break through congressional gridlock. The longtime senator is a familiar face to many Senate colleagues from his years in the upper chamber and his time as vice president.  

Being out of the country for a week could further set back hopes for progress with both chambers of Congress only in town for a few weeks in June. 

Biden has spent months feeling out whether a bipartisan deal on infrastructure is possible, but talks with the GOP are at a dead end.  

Democratic lawmakers have become increasingly impatient during the White House’s negotiations with Republicans to strike a deal, calling on Biden to move on. 

“These negotiations cannot go on and on and on. In my own view, do I believe we will have 10 Republican votes to do something significant on physical infrastructure, for climate, for human infrastructure, for health care, for education? No, I don’t,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told MSNBC on Monday.  

There is a risk, some close to the White House argue, that expending more time talking with Republicans who may never get to “yes” will cause the Democratic coalition to fray. 

The urgency to move forward via reconciliation has been increased as the economic recovery hasn’t surged, which some experts expected, with back-to-back disappointing jobs reports in April and May. 

Democrats’ top agenda items that would require 60 votes in the Senate to pass, like the election reform bill, Biden’s American Families Plan and policing reform, are hitting a major roadblock with moderate Democrats’ opposition to altering the filibuster. 

Some Democrats and strategists close to the White House believe the sense of uncertainty that has emerged around Biden’s agenda in recent days may be overstated. They pointed to the transportation bills working their way through Congress that overlap with key aspects of the American Jobs Plan and bipartisan talks on policing reform that have slowly but steadily progressed over the last month. 

“I think President Biden has done a great job of setting a more moderate pace such that every single day and every single news cycle is not so make or break and not such a constant crisis the way it was under Trump,” said Jesse Lee, vice president of communications at Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “So I think he’s perfectly capable of handling our international affairs, which are just as important, and keeping momentum going at the same time on his agenda.”

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