By Kevin Liptak, CNN
President Joe Biden has for months been circumspect in describing the behind-the-scenes negotiations with Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema over his sweeping domestic ambitions. He emerged Thursday prepared to spill some of the details.
Speaking amid what all sides describe as final-stage talks on a major spending package containing much of Biden’s social and environmental agenda, Biden said the two moderate senators were holdouts on critical priority items: expanding paid leave and Medicare, offering tuition-free community college and raising taxes on corporations.
If the President was frustrated at their recalcitrance over some of his most-promised items, he did not let it show. He praised Sinema as “smart as the devil” and said Manchin was “not a bad guy.”
While the senators’ positions have frustrated fellow Democrats, Biden adopted a pragmatic approach at a CNN Town Hall, saying he was searching for areas of compromise even as the two moderates wield outsized power on his presidency.
“When you’re in the United States Senate, and you’re President of the United States, and you have 50 Democrats, every one is a President. Every single one — so you gotta work things out,” Biden said, acknowledging the limits of Democrats’ power despite control over the White House and both chambers of Congress.
Until now, Biden had been careful to avoid laying out specifics on the plan as it was being haggled out among lawmakers and his legislative team. Even Thursday, Biden claimed he was unwilling to broker a plan remotely.
“We’re down to four or five issues which I’m not going to negotiate on national television,” he told Anderson Cooper.
Yet he proceeded to describe in detail how he’d arrived at critical compromises with Manchin and Sinema, and offered new insights on national television into two of the most important relationships in Washington.
He said a paid leave provision included in the original framework had been whittled down to four weeks, a significant concession from Biden’s original goal of twelve weeks.
He said it would be a “reach” to include dental, vision and hearing coverage to Medicare, a key priority for progressives including independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, saying Manchin opposed it — and that he believed Sinema was against it as well.
Instead, he said he was working to include an $800 voucher for dental coverage, and was still negotiating whether vision could be added, too.
He flatly said he was opposed to work requirements for a child tax credit, which Manchin has favored.
And he acknowledged that tuition-free community college was unlikely to make it in the final bill, saying instead an expansion of Pell grants could help drive toward expanded higher education.
“It’s not going to get us the whole thing,” he said, vowing to continue pressing his free college plan in the coming months.
Biden wasn’t shy in describing the moderate Democrats’ stances in detail. He acknowledged Sinema “says she won’t raise a single penny in taxes on the corporate side and on wealthy people,” a major stumbling block in his pledge to fully pay for his package.
And he detailed Manchin’s opposition to a major clean energy provision, saying he was worried about coal jobs in his state. He said he was working to convince Manchin to support the other programs.
“Joe is open to my convincing him that I can use it to increase environmental progress without it being that particular deal,” he said, referencing the Clean Electricity Performance Program, or CEPP, which would give utilities federal grants to increase their share of electricity from clean sources and penalize those who fail to increase their clean electricity portfolios.
“Nothing has been formally agreed to,” Biden said.
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