Hill Democrats deeply divided over Biden’s fate upon return to Washington

Senate and House Democrats remain divided over President Biden’s fate as they return to Washington on Monday, wondering whether the president should remain at the top of the ticket and what that means for them in November.

It’s the first time the two chambers have had serious in-person talks since Biden’s interrupted debate performance in late June defied the expectations of dozens of lawmakers, some of whom question whether the president can serve another term.

While various legislators While the 81-year-old Biden has publicly expressed their loyalty to him, they are outnumbered by those who have spent the past week fretting about his future and expressing serious doubts that the 81-year-old can defeat Donald Trump in November.

On Sunday, nine House Democrats — four privately and five publicly — called for Biden to withdraw from the race. In addition, at least 18 current and former top Democrats on Saturday publicly expressed concerns about Biden’s fitness for office and his ability to defeat Trump as the president heads into a critical week.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) is in listening mode and has kept his opinions on Biden’s situation to himself for now. So has Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). Both must balance their loyalty to Biden against their own members’ concerns about retaking the House’s slim majority and keeping the Senate in November.

Biden’s campaign has stepped up its outreach to Democrats on Capitol Hill in hopes of stemming the bleeding if they return.

On Monday morning, Biden sent a two-page letter to all Democrats in Congress, laying out a unified party vision and defiantly declaring that he is “committed to staying in this race, seeing this race through to the end, and defeating Donald Trump.”

“The question of how to move forward has been raging for more than a week. And it’s time for it to stop,” Biden wrote at the end of his letter. “Any weakening of resolve or lack of clarity about the task ahead only helps Trump and hurts us. It’s time to come together.”

Hours before the letter was sent, the Biden-Harris campaign sent a memo to all Democratic offices Sunday night. In the memo, obtained by The Washington Post, the campaign outlined 15 public and private events Biden has attended since the debate, touting comments from Hill Democrats defending Biden and summarizing how grassroots support for the president remains steadfast.

While it’s unclear how the memo will be received by lawmakers, many House Democratic members and aides privately grumbled early last week that the campaign sent out talking points instead of considering their requests to put Biden on the trail more often. Many Democrats say the outreach is too little, too late and should have happened a week ago, days after the debate.

Biden is expected to call more lawmakers this week, after reaching out to 20 last week — including Schumer, Jeffries and Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) — to assure Democrats he is hearing their concerns, a campaign official said.

Some Democrats are waiting to see how Biden does on the campaign trail and at this week’s NATO summit in Washington before making a judgment. Others say the campaign and Biden’s ramped-up schedule are too little, too late.

Many are concerned that the president continues to deny that he can beat Trump.

Calls for Biden to step aside have so far come exclusively from lawmakers in the House of Representatives. But that could easily change, and last week Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) attempted to form a group that would go to the White House to demand the president’s departure.

“The president said he would listen to the Lord Almighty when he came down, and it’s Sunday, and I certainly respect the Lord, but this is a real-world decision for him and for everyday Democratic senators and members of Congress,” Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said in an interview Sunday, referring to Biden’s comments in a Friday meeting with ABC News. “As much as we would like to see divine intervention, it’s going to elude us. So we have to act.”

In a preview of the divisive week ahead, 24 top Democrats on House committees participated in a virtual, confidential call Sunday with Jeffries, House Minority Leader Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and House Speaker Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.). The members were divided over whether to defend or abandon Biden, according to three people who took part in the call. Like others in the story, they spoke anonymously to speak openly about internal party deliberations.

Reps. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Joseph Morelle (D-N.Y.) and Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) — all of whom are top Democrats on their respective committees — were all described as having strongly advocated for abolishing Biden.

Reps. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) countered and fiercely defended Biden, saying his one bad debate night shouldn’t overshadow his historic presidency and vision for the future. They also pointed out that there is little evidence so far that shows he can’t beat Trump.

“President Biden defeated Trump in 2020, and now, buoyed by his historic record of success, he will do it again in November,” Neal said in a statement after the call. “Republicans pose the greatest threat to the health of our democracy, our economy and our people, and the President knows what’s at stake. I stand with him all the way and will fight like hell to defeat those threats.”

Other Democrats began publicly criticizing their colleagues for leaking private meetings and complaints to journalists.

“Some people have spent the last 10 days leaking more negativity and attacks on our own nominee than on the opponent. There are still 120 days until the election,” Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) posted on social media on Sunday.

While Jeffries and his lieutenants have largely kept defections at bay as they listen to frustrated colleagues vent their frustrations, House Democrats and their top aides acknowledge that the talks over the next three days — including their weekly all-member caucus on Tuesday — will clarify what role Congress plays in this unprecedented time.

“Whatever we decide, we have to get it done within the next 48 hours, because right now we have the worst of both worlds,” Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) told his colleagues on Sunday, according to a Democrat on the call.

Democratic senators, long the president’s strongest base of support on Capitol Hill, have been quieter than their more vocal counterparts in the House. But behind the scenes, many senators share similar fears that Biden has run out of steam, according to multiple senators and aides who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the dynamics freely.

Warner, who has told people he doesn’t think Biden can beat Trump, has been quietly pushing for a strategy to take Biden out of the race. The Virginia Democrat’s preliminary plan to call senators into an in-person meeting to discuss Biden’s future appears to have been scrapped after reports of the effort threw the plans into disarray, one senator said. Instead, senators are likely to discuss Biden during their regularly scheduled lunch on Tuesday.

Several senators said Sunday that time is running out.

“Right now we’re kind of stuck in the mud, where despite the fact that we have a convicted felon against us, the whole conversation is about the fitness of the president and we can’t stay in that position,” Welch said. “So we have to move on. So it’s either an extraordinary success by Biden to resolve the age issue — it’s very hard to see how that gets done — or we move on.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said on CNN that this week will be “absolutely critical,” adding that the president’s ABC News interview didn’t do enough to address people’s concerns. “I think the president needs to do more,” he said.

Other senators defended Biden.

“Biden is old,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), 82, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “He’s not as eloquent as he used to be. I wish he could jump up the steps of Air Force One. He can’t. What we need to focus on is policy. Whose policies have and will benefit the vast majority of people in this country?”

Sanders said he would not attend a meeting of senators to discuss Biden’s future.

Many lawmakers remained concerned about the “what ifs” surrounding Biden: What if he has another debate opportunity in the weeks after he officially becomes the Democratic nominee following the convention? What if he continues to slide if he wins re-election, dragging down congressional candidates in the midterm elections two years from now? What if he can’t beat Trump in November?

Some House Democrats are still weighing whether to go public, noting that feedback from local leaders and constituents has been mixed — some want their lawmakers to publicly ask Biden to step aside, and others say Biden should make the decision himself without input from members of Congress. Some lawmakers also revealed that their Washington offices have been fielding calls throughout the week from constituents representing both viewpoints.

One thing is certain: the talks on Capitol Hill will continue.

“The fear of another Trump presidency, especially given how much more unhinged he has become, is palpable. And so I think people are going to rally,” said Rep. Deborah Ross (D-N.C.).

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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