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Biden’s uncertain political future divides Democrats as they return to Capitol Hill

Biden’s uncertain political future divides Democrats as they return to Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON (AP) — Deeply divided over President Joe Biden’s candidacy, Democratic lawmakers are returning to Washington at a crucial moment as they decide whether to revive his campaign or defeat the party’s leader, a crucial moment for his reelection and their own political futures.

Fears are mounting as top Democratic lawmakers join calls for Biden to step aside after his poor public debate performance and his stubborn response to the outcry. At the same time, some of the president’s staunchest supporters are doubling down on Biden’s presidency, insisting there is no one better to defeat Republican Donald Trump in what many see as one of the most important elections of their lifetimes.

As lawmakers consider whether Biden should stay or go, there appear to be no easy answers in sight.

It’s an uncertain and highly volatile moment for the president’s party. Democrats who have worked with Biden for years — if not decades — and cherished his life’s work on policy priorities are now asking uncomfortable questions about his political future. And that comes as Biden hosts world leaders in Washington this week for the NATO summit.

Time is not on their side, with the Democratic National Convention nearly a month away and Republicans convening in Milwaukee to re-nominate Trump as their presidential nominee. Many Democrats argue that attention should instead be focused on the former president’s felony conviction in the hush-money case and the upcoming federal charges in his bid to overturn the 2020 election.

Biden himself might call it a tipping point. As he defiantly declares that he will step aside only when the Lord Almighty comes and tells him to, Democrats in the House and Senate are deciding how hard they want to fight the president to change course, or if they want to change course at all.

In an effort to “get on the same page,” House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries is calling lawmakers into private meetings before making his own claims, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity. He plans to rally Democrats on Monday whose re-election bids are most vulnerable.

But a private call Sunday among about 15 top House committee members laid bare the growing divide, as at least four other Democrats — Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state and Rep. Mark Takano of California — privately said Biden should step aside.

Nadler, as the most senior member of the call, was the first person to speak and say Biden should step aside, according to a person familiar with the call who was granted anonymity to discuss it. He did so knowing he had seniority and that others could then join him.

Many others on the call expressed concerns about Biden’s re-election chances and ability, though they stopped short of saying Biden should withdraw from the race.

Still other members, including Rep. Maxine Waters of California and Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, both leaders in the Congressional Black Caucus, spoke out strongly in support of Biden, as did Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

And several lawmakers appeared frustrated that leadership offered no direction or path forward, according to people familiar with the conversation. One Democratic lawmaker said that regardless of the decision, the situation “has to end now,” one of the people said.

Neal said afterward that the bottom line is that Biden beat Trump in 2020 and will do so again in November.

The upheaval is also testing a new generation of leaders, led by Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Both New Yorkers have refrained from publicly directing lawmakers on a path forward while balancing the diverse voices in their ranks.

Behind the scenes, Speaker Emeritus Nancy Pelosi continues to field calls from lawmakers seeking advice on the situation. Given her closeness to the president and her skills at counting votes in partisan politics, she is widely seen as the one to watch in any final decision on Biden’s future.

Pelosi spoke out last week, saying Biden’s debate performances raised “legitimate” questions that he needed to answer, but she has continued to support the president. And Biden called her last week when he reached out to other party leaders.

When Biden’s primetime ABC interview on Friday seemed to do little to calm concerned Democrats, and some said it only made matters worse, Pelosi stepped forward to publicly praise Biden on social media as a “great president who continues to deliver for the American kitchen table.” She added, “and we’re not there yet!”

Schumer has kept a low profile throughout the ordeal, but he will invite Democratic senators to their weekly lunch on Tuesday, where the senators will no doubt have their say.

One Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, had planned to call senators together on Monday to discuss Biden privately, but a person familiar with his thinking said those conversations will take place during Tuesday’s regular caucus lunch with all Democratic senators.

Another Democrat, Sen. Alex Padilla of California, said it was “time to stop wringing our hands and get back to knocking on doors.”

Padilla spoke to Biden over the weekend and urged his campaign to “let Joe be Joe.”

“Given the debate, I think the campaign has no choice,” Padilla said Sunday, explaining that Biden should hold town halls and unscheduled events to show voters “the Joe Biden that I know, and that most Americans have come to cherish and love.”

While some big-budget donors may be uncomfortable, strategists working on the House and Senate races said they’ve raised record amounts of fundraising because donors see Democrats in Congress as a “firewall” and the last line of defense against Trump.

House Democrats have had some of their better fundraising days so far, including raising $3 million last Friday night at a post-debate event with former President Barack Obama and Jeffries in New York City. That’s on top of the $1.3 million that rolled into the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the debate and its immediate aftermath.

Senate Democrats are also seeing a “surge” of support, according to a national Democrat with knowledge of the Senate elections.

As Democratic candidates campaign alongside Biden, the advice has been to focus on building their own brands and strengthening how the work done in Congress impacts their local constituencies.

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Associated Press journalists Farnoush Amiri, Kevin Freking and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

Lisa Mascaro, Associated Press