(WASHINGTON) — For reporters in Washington, it’s a frequent refrain from President Joe Biden on the status of negotiations with lawmakers on his domestic agenda: “I won’t negotiate in the press.”
But Thursday evening marked a shift from the strategy of playing his cards close to his chest. The president was unusually candid at a CNN town hall, laying his cards out publicly, and unafraid to call out moderate Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema on the roadblocks they’ve created in the talks.
The decision was perhaps a calculated one, as the White House counts down the days before Biden departs for a major climate summit in Europe, at which the president hopes to have real domestic progress in hand to encourage other nations to adopt similar measures.
Early Friday morning, Biden hosted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the White House for breakfast, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer joining remotely, the three leaders already back at the bargaining table.
Pelosi later told reporters Friday that Democrats are nearing a deal on their two major agenda packages.
“We have a couple of outstanding issues that just need a decision,” she said, describing a deal as within reach. “I think it’s very possible,” she added.
Biden’s town hall capped off what has been the most momentous week of negotiation in months, with the president acquiescing to losing some key programs from his initial $3.5 trillion wish list, in order to meet those moderates calling for less government spending. The acknowledgement of the concessions could send a signal to Democrats that a deal on the package, which has been whittled from Biden’s $3.5 trillion wish list to just under $2 trillion, is imminent.
“I do think I’ll get a deal,” Biden said, in summary of the movement in recent days.
That deal has not been easy in coming. Biden admitted some painful cuts to his programs at the town hall, but the lifelong politician, who campaigned on his ability to reach bipartisan deals, said some losses were inevitable.
“Hey look, it’s all about compromise. You know, it’s – ‘compromise’ has become a dirty word. But it’s bipartisanship and compromise still has to be possible,” Biden said Thursday.
One of those compromises – losing the corporate tax rate hike Biden has long pushed for.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to get the vote,” Biden said. He was blunt in pinning the blame on a lone hold-out in his caucus.
“Senator Sinema is opposed to any tax rate hikes for corporations and for high earners,” Biden said, offering an unusual amount of insight into his talks with the moderate Democrat.
Later Thursday, a White House official clarified that Biden meant it would be challenging to get enough votes to raise the corporate tax rate, but that other proposals, such as a tax increase on stock buybacks, or instituting a tax on billionaires’ stock holdings, could make up the difference, ensuring the package, which will likely to top out just under $2 trillion, would not add to the federal deficit.
Biden also wasn’t shy in pulling back the curtain on his conversations with moderate Manchin. Admitting that the plan to expand Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision “a reach” at this point in the talks, Biden revealed Manchin’s thinking, and said he could settle for $800 vouchers to cover dental work.
“He says he doesn’t want to further burden Medicare so that — because it will run out of its ability to maintain itself in the next number of years. There’s ways to fix that, but he’s not interested in that part, either. But, look, Joe — Joe’s not a bad guy. I mean, he’s a friend. And he’s always, at the end of the day, come around and voted for it,” Biden said.
Biden also for the first time admitted that his proposal to guarantee 12 weeks of paid family leave will be cut significantly.
“It is down to 4 weeks,” Biden said, in a frank assessment. “And the reason it’s down to 4 weeks is because I can’t get 12 weeks.”
Biden also confirmed that two years of free community college is falling victim to the downsizing. He offered an increase to Pell grants instead, and vowed to continue to fight for the program.
“I promise you, I guarantee you, we’re going to get free community college in the next several years, across the board,” he said, adding jokingly that his first lady Jill Biden, a community college professor, would insist on it.
ABC News’ Benjamin Siegel contributed to this report.
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