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Democrats can't agree on Biden's 'Build Back Better' bill

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Biden made his first in-person visit last night with the House Democratic caucus. Democrats missed a self-imposed deadline this week to vote on a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. That bill - it's being held up over internal differences on another and much larger spending plan that's championed by the party. Leaders say they're working to try to smooth those differences, but if they fall short, they could derail the majority of the president's domestic agenda. We have NPR's congressional reporter Claudia Grisales here. Thanks for being with us.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Thanks, Scott. Good to be with you.

SIMON: And what was the message the Democrats had coming out of their meeting yesterday?

GRISALES: They say they need more time. President Biden seemed to share that sentiment after he was leaving that meeting when a mob of reporters asked him when these votes would happen.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It doesn't matter when. It doesn't matter whether it's in six minutes, six days, or six weeks. We're going to get it done.

GRISALES: So clearly, Democrats are not ready. But we should note one piece of legislation that did not get voted on in that bipartisan legislation. A highway funding provision that hit its own deadline was passed as a standalone bill in the House last night and now heads to the Senate. That said, progressive members say they will not vote on the overall infrastructure bill until they reach a deal with moderates on a much larger plan. So that's delaying both vote. But although negotiations will continue, these two factions of the party have been pretty far apart.

SIMON: If Democrats aren't ready to close the deal, what did the president hope to accomplish by coming up to where they live and work?

GRISALES: He's trying to rally the Democrats. This is a very tricky time. Missing this deadline was a setback, and it raises worries for the party that they cannot get this done. And some House Democrats complain that Biden has not been involved enough, especially for this House caucus, where there's this divide over the legislation. So we've seen the White House ramp up their involvement recently, and it seems like Biden was there to get that encouragement going and keep them on track.

SIMON: Did it work?

GRISALES: That's the frustration. Moderates and progressives were just trading barbs last night and statements over this week's failure, but some Democrats shared a note of unity after the meeting. And more importantly, they sounded determined to get both bills across the finish line. Here's Arizona Democrat Ruben Gallego.

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RUBEN GALLEGO: Two important things I got out of that is that - please compromise. This is the most transformational thing we're going to be able to do for this country.

GRISALES: And Gallego went on to say one bill can't pass without the other. And that was always the original deal by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, that these bills would move in tandem when they're both ready.

SIMON: And, of course, there's another deadline that Congress is facing. And it is vital, isn't it?

GRISALES: It is. It's a big one coming. That's raising the debt limit. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned Congress this past week that the deadline will be reached on October 18. That's a little over two weeks from now. And she says if they don't address this, the country could face a financial catastrophe. Republicans say they won't help Democrats solve this problem, so they blocked a vote on it this past week. And they've suggested it should be part of Democrats' larger $3.5 trillion bill. But the party is refusing to go along with that plan. They say it's too risky. That said, we don't know how they plan to solve this quite yet, so that's going to build up serious worries in the coming days if they cannot get it done.

SIMON: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales, thanks so much for being with us.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.