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Democratic leaders rally around Biden

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are rallying around President Biden as scores of lawmakers in the party privately — and publicly — question his viability at the top of the ticket after his disastrous debate performance in Atlanta last month.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Monday both amplified previous statements of support for Biden, the party’s presumptive nominee, despite the backlash from the debate. 

“I made clear the day after the debate publicly that I support President Joe Biden and the Democratic ticket,” Jeffries told reporters in the Capitol. “My position has not changed.”

At the same time, however, opposition to Biden’s bid for reelection is swelling within the Democratic ranks. 

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, made waves on Monday in becoming the sixth House Democrat to call publicly for Biden to step aside, adding to the public resistance to Biden that is even more pronounced behind the scenes.

Smith said Biden has a great track record on which to run, but he’s no longer able to communicate that record to the public in a manner that energizes voters and gives Democrats the best chance of defeating Trump.

“I think he should step aside,” Smith said on CNN’s “The Lead” program. “I think it’s become clear that he’s not the best person to carry the Democratic message.”

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who has also come out publicly against keeping Biden on the ballot, said many other Democratic lawmakers agree, but are simply waiting for the right time to announce it.

“They will,” he said. “Let’s just let it take its course.” 

But Biden on Monday also picked up support from other prominent lawmakers, who returned to Washington from the long July 4 recess throwing their weight behind the president. 

“He has made abundantly clear that he is in this race; he has made abundantly clear that he is not leaving this race, he is the nominee,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who said she spoke to Biden over the weekend, told reporters in the Capitol on Monday. “I am making sure that I support him and that I am focused on making sure that we win in November.”

That internal divide — which is widening day-by-day — will be front-and-center during a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill Tuesday morning, when Democratic leaders will huddle in person with the rank-and-file members of the House Democratic Caucus for the first time since the June 27 debate. 

During that 90-minute event, Biden, at times, was incoherent, stumbled over words, lost his train of thought and changed topics in the midst of responses. The performance stunned Democrats and triggered previously unthinkable questions about whether he should continue to seek a second term.

Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) on Monday said he’s not ready to call for Biden to bow out, but will be watching carefully this week to see if the campaign has a strategy for winning the handful of battleground states that will decide who controls power in Washington next year. 

“The campaign has not given us a reason to be confident,” Peters said. “We have a tough task in the swing states to beat Trump. And we needed a boost from the debate, and we got the opposite. We have to really think about how we win those states.”

One House Democrat, who has said Biden should step aside, predicted on Monday that more lawmakers will publicly call on the president to withdraw from the race if data show that Democrats are at risk of losing the lower chamber with Biden at the top of the ticket. Those poll numbers, the lawmaker argued, were delayed because of the July 4 holiday.

“My sense is they’re like gonna get a bunch of data back this week… I think if it looks like there’s a major bleed in some of our swing districts and we can’t win the House, that’s gonna be the five-alarm fire because our job at the end of the day is to win the House,” said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.

“We’re just petrified of losing it all,” the Democrat added. “That’s honestly what people are petrified about.”

The episode is posing a stark challenge for Jeffries and other Democratic leaders, who are scrambling to tamp down the mounting internal anxiety over Biden’s fitness and unite the party for the sake of keeping Trump out of the White House.

Tuesday’s gathering — which will take place at the party’s campaign headquarters, to allow for talk of campaigns — will mark a key step in that process. In a sign of how sensitive the conversation is expected to be, lawmakers have been asked not to bring their phones.   

“Caucus meeting will be an excellent opportunity to hear from all our members,” House Minority Whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) told reporters Monday.

Others suggested it will be a tense affair. 

“People are lined up on both sides,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), a staunch Biden supporter. “You’ve got people like myself who are all-in for the president. And you’ve got people who are really fearful because of their districts, and they want to dump him. 

“So I think it’s going to be a battle-royal, but I don’t think you’re going to get to any consensus.” 

To rally support, Biden held a call with members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) on Monday evening, providing him an opportunity to shore up support from a group that is virtually united behind his presidential run.

“The most loyal group to the Democratic Party is the Black community. Bar none. So I’m glad he recognizes it,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said shortly before the call. “The policies that he’s promoted work, and they’ve been good for this country. And normally, we judge a person on their record.” 

While Jeffries, the top House Democrat, back Biden on Monday, not all members of his leadership team followed suit.

Clark, the No. 3 Democrat in the chamber, did not directly answer when asked if Biden is the best person to articulate the party’s message ahead of the November election — “we are gonna continue to have conversations about that,” she said — an omission that is raising eyebrows about her favored strategy.

“We stand with the work that we have done with this president,” she said.

Rep. Ted Lieu (Calif.), the vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, similarly would not respond to questions about Biden’s viability as the nominee, deferring to his weekly press conference on Tuesday.

Other Democrats are also voicing skepticism about Biden’s standing at the top of the ticket.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters she is “continuing to listen” to lawmakers in the group, but said members need to see the president “in unscripted situations” as they weigh the question of whether or not to keep him as the party’s nominee.

“He’s our nominee right now and I’m not — I don’t believe that public conversations that … damage our nominee are necessarily good,” she added. “I think the private conversations are important.”

Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) said she is “supporting the president,” but added that she is “clear-eyed about the challenge in front of us.”

“I’m talking to our leadership, I’m talking to the campaign, I’m talking to the administration, most importantly I’m talking to my constituents, and they are quite split,” she continued.

As the debate rolls on, and the opposition becomes more vocal, all sides agree that it’s not the fight Democrats want to be having four months ahead of November’s elections. 

“There’s lots of conversations going on, but at the end of the day, if the president’s running, he’s our nominee,” said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.). “And we don’t help win this election if we’re all divided.” 

Bera said he’s been encouraged at recent steps Biden has taken to salvage his image following the debate, including a pointed letter he sent to congressional Democrats on Monday morning vowing to remain in the race and urging them to band together behind him. 

“His letter was pretty forceful,” Bera said. “And if that’s the case, let’s take that anger, let’s take that energy, and let’s go win this thing.” 

Others were even more critical of the critics. Vargas characterized the debate as “a circular firing squad.” 

“What we have right now is our own guys tackling our quarterback. And, yeah, you don’t win games when you tackle your own quarterback,” he said. “At the end of the day, if we lose, it’s not going to be Biden, it’s going to be us.”

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