In two meetings meant to rally Congressional Democrats behind his stalled agenda last fall, President Biden stunned his allies by blurting out confidential details of a conversation with a key senator and left them scratching their heads with an anecdote about baseball great Satchel Paige, according to a new book.
Biden brought together progressives and moderates in the Oval Office on Sept. 22, 2021, to personally try to break the impasse over the separate infrastructure and social spending bills, New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns write in “This Will Not Pass.”
Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona had expressed skepticism at the price tag of the latter plan, which left-wing Democrats had pegged at up to $3.5 trillion.
Martin and Burns write that up to that point, Sinema had been a “uniquely opaque character” in the negotiations, keeping her specific objections to the legislation quiet in accordance with White House requests.
During the September meeting, Biden suggested that the Build Back Better plan could wind up costing about $2 trillion before noting that Sinema was pushing for much less.
“In fact, Biden told the group, the Arizona senator had set her limit at $1.1 trillion,” Martin and Burns write. “The room froze. Now Biden had exposed to some of Sinema’s colleagues the very position his aides had asked her to conceal.”
“Mr. President,” the “visibly angry” Sinema reportedly said. “That was a private conversation.”
She then stood up and asked: ”Do you want me to leave?”
According to the authors, Biden tried to take the edge off the room and did not ask Sinema to leave. If the president resented her flash of temper, they write, he kept those feelings to himself. The confrontation described in the book was first reported by the Dispatch ahead of the tome’s May 3 publication.
Days later, on Oct. 1, Biden traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with Democrats as the House prepared to vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan.
Martin and Burns wrote that Biden told lawmakers they were on the verge of making a transformational change in America, adding that the bill would benefit families and children for generations and lead to a cleaner environment.
But noting the close margins by which Democrats held the House and Senate, Biden told them they would have to compromise and admitted that he had still not been able to convince the two Democratic holdouts in the Senate.
That would require more time, the president reportedly said, and the vote on the infrastructure bill would have to wait to give him more time to build a consensus.
“If Biden had a plan, he did not share it,” the authors write.
What the president did do was “share a story about Satchel Paige, the legendary [b]lack pitcher who played baseball deep into his forties in a career that spanned the integration of Major League Baseball,” according to the book.
The then-78-year-old Biden told a oft-repeated story about Paige being asked how he was still able to play baseball at an advanced age.
” ‘How old would you be if you did not know how old you were?’ ” Biden quoted Paige as responding, according to the book.
”It was not clear what message Biden intended to convey with that story. Some members had heard it from him before, in the more appropriate venue of the Democratic dugout at the congressional baseball game the previous night,” Martin and Burns write.
“As lawmakers filed out of the meeting room Friday after an anti-climatic presidential address, Biden’s yarn about an aging pitcher was not altogether reassuring,” they added.
The Satchel Paige story is a favorite of Biden’s. The president regaled Pope Francis with the tale during a visit to the Vatican weeks after the ill-fated meeting with his fellow Democrats. The following month, he also related a version of the story during remarks at a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
While the infrastructure bill was passed by the House and signed into law by Biden in November, Manchin sank the Build Back Better plan in December, announcing in an interview on “Fox News Sunday” that he could not support the measure due to its negative impact on inflation.