White House Resisting National Pressure Campaign on Manchin, Sinema to Pass $3.5T Package

The White House says it will not be putting political pressure on Democratic Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia to pass President Joe Biden's $3.5 trillion infrastructure package.

White House aides noted that Sinema and Manchin are generally not responsive to political pressure, which is why they believe it's better for Biden to explain the package to get the two Democrats on board.

The president canceled his plans to visit Chicago Wednesday to promote vaccines, choosing to stay in Washington as negotiations to pass the bill reach a critical stage.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki addressed the elements of the "Build Back Better" package during her briefing on Monday in the hopes of convincing lawmakers still on the fence.

Psaki began her briefing by saying, "I wanted to take the opportunity just to remind everyone, specifically in the public, of what we're talking about in these packages and why the president is fighting so hard to get his agenda forward."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Joe Manchin
The White House is resisting putting national political pressure on Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia to pass the $3.5 trillion "Build Back Better" package. Manchin talks to members of the press from inside an elevator at the U.S. Capitol September 28, 2021 in Washington. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The package, now the subject of furious negotiations on Capitol Hill, would fundamentally transform the government's relationship with its citizens and dramatically expand the social safety net.

It sets out to broaden well-known programs — for example, adding dental, vision and hearing aid benefits to Medicare and continuing the Obama-era health law's temporary subsidies that helped people buy insurance during the pandemic,

But anxiety has risen among congressional Democrats during the negotiations, with some blame placed on Biden. He had planned to spend recent weeks driving support for the legislation but was sidetracked by the tumult in Afghanistan and the surge in coronavirus cases.

Some Democrats worry the president's pitch on the package doesn't always click with people looking for a more concrete idea of what's in it for them.

"This is a case where the parts are greater than the sum: It's important for people to know what the parts are, they are very popular and would have a very positive impact on people's life," said David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. "But it's become a battle over price tag and that's unappealing. That's the battlefield where Republicans want Democrats to fight."

Polling suggests that elements in the bill such as child care and infrastructure are popular with large parts of the public. But advocates worry the voters don't know that those things are in the plan.

"'Building Back Better' doesn't say to people what we are building back — at least when you talk about bridges, people have an idea," said Robert Blendon, a longtime public opinion analyst at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "It's the price you pay when you are not dealing with a single issue. ... 'Building Back' is the slogan, but there's just no evidence that the public grasps what is in this bill."

The need for a reset was so clear that the West Wing decided that Psaki would begin her Monday briefing by delivering a detailed rundown of just what's in the bill. That's according to two of the more than a half-dozen White House aides and Democrats close to the West Wing who were interviewed for this story but spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations.

The Biden administration has found itself constantly pulled off its intended message of a nation rebounding to new heights. Initial signs of an economic boom from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package ran headfirst into a shortage of computer chips and other goods that have caused higher inflation, a persistent problem that was largely unforeseen by Biden's team, according to one administration official.

Some Democrats are pushing back on the hand-wringing over how to sell the big bill, believing the details should not come as much of a surprise.

Beyond the new programs, the package is made up of long-standing Democratic priorities on health care, education and climate change on which many lawmakers have campaigned.

"This agenda is not some fringe wish list: It is the president's agenda, the Democratic agenda, and what we all promised voters when they delivered us the House, Senate and White House," Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in a statement.

That hasn't satisfied some Democratic allies.

For example, $10 billion for high-speed rail was shifted from a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill into the larger package of spending initiatives. Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, urged Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to more forcefully sell it. "If they were talking about it more, that would definitely help in letting the American people know what's at stake here," he said.

With hurricanes, floods and wildfires dominating local news most of the summer, the machinations in Washington have not broken through to where people are actually following the debate.

"The top concern about messaging is that it's not getting far and wide enough," said Margarida Jorge, campaign director for Lower Drug Prices Now, a coalition backing a component of Biden's bill, authority for Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.

"Mostly people in the states have not been reading about the content of the bill," Jorge said. "If they're reading anything at all it's about the size."

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden’s plan for a massive expansion of social programs is being framed by supporters as such a high-stakes endeavor that it’s “too big to fail.” In this September 24, 2021 photo, President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 response and vaccinations in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. Patrick Semansky/AP Photo