Hill Dems brace for fight over Biden’s future to get worse

President Joe Biden’s outreach efforts to congressional Democrats haven’t quelled the party-wide panic over his future on the ticket — and the fight is about to get uglier.

Biden spoke Monday night with some of his most loyal supporters, telling a group of Black lawmakers: “You’ve had my back and I’ll continue to have yours,” according to a person in the meeting. He plans to meet soon with a rattled group of House progressives. He personally called roughly 20 individual members over the past week, according to a campaign official. And he sent a letter to Democrats Monday morning forcefully committing to staying in the race.

But the party dismay over Biden’s electability has not abated.

While just six Democrats are publicly calling for the president to end his campaign, dozens more lawmakers — even some who say they’re with Biden — are harboring serious doubts about their nominee in private, according to interviews with more than 30 lawmakers and senior aides. There’s widespread anxiety over which route would be worse: sticking with Biden or trying to toss him out.

That fight over Biden’s future, so far confined mostly to one-on-one calls with leadership and lawmaker group chats, will be the subject of a pair of high-profile meetings among Hill Democrats on Tuesday.

“Frankly, I think he has to do more than just double down,” said Rep. Joe Morelle (D-N.Y.), one of several Democrats who called for Biden to step aside on a private phone call Sunday. “I think the American public is very concerned about his ability to continue to serve as a commander in chief. He’s going to have to do more to persuade them than simply writing a letter.”

After days of privately venting about Biden’s post-debate performance, many Democrats fear the painful split over whether the president should remain in the race is only going to get worse. Even seasoned lawmakers and aides say they can’t predict whether the caucus will ultimately decide to get in line behind Biden or to try to force him out. What many say they don’t want is something in between — a stasis that means Hill Democrats will keep tearing themselves apart as Republicans crown Donald Trump at their convention next week.

Inside various staff and member-level meetings on Monday, House Democrats agreed to hold off on any talk about Biden until their full caucus meets Tuesday morning. That meeting, held at the caucus’ off-site campaign headquarters, is expected to be a tense political discussion.

Many are waiting for a sign at that meeting from their leaders. Not just House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, but also party elders like Rep. Jim Clyburn or former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. All three have generally supported Biden, but have each made at least one remark in recent days that left some Democrats privately guessing how deep that support runs.

Jeffries was unequivocal on Monday, telling reporters: “I made clear publicly the day after the debate that I support President Joe Biden and the Democratic ticket. My position has not changed.”

Top progressives are signaling they’ll wait to hear from others in the party before moving forward. Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said her bloc was getting together with the president soon but gave a noncommittal response when asked about the president: “I’m behind whoever our nominee is at the time.”

But some of the House’s best-known liberals, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), made clear they are standing behind Biden.

“I spoke with the president extensively this weekend. He has made abundantly clear that he is in this race. He has made abundantly clear that he is not leaving this race. He is the nominee. I am making sure that I support him and that I am focused on making sure that we win in November,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

“Joe Biden is the nominee,” Pressley echoed.

But even for those Democrats who believe there’s no way to replace Biden, there’s significant alarm over the tepid support elsewhere in the party — even among the president’s former colleagues. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), for instance, acknowledged he is actively discussing “alternatives” to Biden with his fellow senators.

Unlike the House, no Democratic senators have explicitly called for Biden to get off the ticket. But some voiced their skepticism outright. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who is up for reelection in purple Wisconsin, said she spent a week crisscrossing the state and found “my constituents are asking a lot of questions.” Another highly endangered Democrat, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, said voters have “legitimate questions” over Biden topping the ticket.

Several more Senate Democrats declined to comment, indicating that they are waiting to talk to colleagues on Tuesday. That chamber’s Democrats will hold their own lunch meeting, their first in-person gathering since the debate.

“I think it would be a huge mistake for the Democratic Party, based on one evening and one debate, to turn aside from supporting a very seasoned and very capable president,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), one of Biden’s most vocal Hill supporters. “President Biden will be the nominee of my party.”

But many more Democrats remain deeply uneasy — if not outright afraid — of what could happen if Biden remains on the ticket. Democrats who are publicly supporting Biden are still privately engaging in plenty of “what ifs,” including researching different states’ statutes about the process for selecting a new nominee this late in an election year.

The only thing Democrats seem to agree on, at this point, is that it’s harmful to the party’s electoral prospects to keep spending precious time focused on their own candidate’s vulnerabilities, instead of Trump’s. One week before Republicans will formally crown their nominee, Democrats are instead spending their time focusing on their own candidate’s biggest vulnerability — his age.

“I think whenever we send mixed messages it’s concerning, but everyone has the right to evaluate what their thoughts are,” said Rep. Troy Carter (D-La.).

Other House Democrats called on Biden to speak directly to their caucus.

“I think he needs to be here in person,” said Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), who said that lawmakers needed to consider “next steps” before reaching conclusions on the president’s candidacy.

Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), the chair of the centrist New Democrat Coalition who has headlined Biden campaign events in New Hampshire, said she’s asked Democratic leadership to invite Biden to speak privately with members.

When asked if Biden would be the strongest candidate to beat Trump, she demurred: “I think it’s all evolving. We’re getting polling information. We’re getting information from our districts. He’s been a fantastic president.”

Jordain Carney, Katherine Tully-McManus, Mia McCarthy, David Lim, Brendan Bordelon, Eleanor Mueller, Carmen Paun, Chris Marquette and Josh Siegel contributed to this report.