Asked during CNN’s town hall in Baltimore why he hasn’t visited the southern border of the United States, the President said, “I’ve been there before … I mean, I know it well.”
“I guess I should go down but the whole point of it is, I haven’t had a whole hell of a lot of time to get down,” Biden continued, adding: “I’ve been spending time going around looking at the $900 billion damage done by hurricanes and floods and weather, and traveling around the world.”
He argued that “you’re not seeing a lot of pictures of kids lying on top of one another with … what looks like tarps on top of them,” but added that “there’s much more to be done.”
During the town hall, Biden fielded wide-ranging questions about the major challenges facing his presidency, focusing largely on domestic issues, with an emphasis on his sweeping economic agenda.
Where Democrats stand
The President provided new insight into Democratic negotiations, laying out in the most specific terms to date what will and won’t be included in a compromise budget measure that contains the bulk of his sweeping domestic agenda. The measure looks to expand the social safety net, combat climate change and raise taxes on the wealthy.
It would be a “reach,” the President said, to include dental, vision and hearing coverage in Medicare, a key priority for progressives, saying Manchin opposed the provision — and that he believed Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, was against it as well. Instead, he said he was working to include an $800 voucher for dental coverage and was still negotiating vision coverage.
Biden said it appeared unlikely he would get corporate tax hikes included in the plan amid opposition from Sinema. “I don’t think we are going to be able to get the vote,” he said.
And he indicated that money from a likely scrapped clean energy provision would be reallocated to other climate change programs.
“Joe (Manchin) is open to my convincing him that I can use it to increase environmental progress without it being that particular deal,” he said, referencing the Clean Electricity Performance Program, which would give utilities federal grants to increase their share of electricity from clean sources and penalize those who fail to increase their clean electricity portfolios.
“Nothing has been formally agreed to,” Biden added.
The details of the plan emerged in the midst of final-stage negotiations among Democrats, who have spent weeks sparring over what to include in the large spending package.
Biden was frank in describing the power of individual senators in the ongoing talks. “Look, in the United States Senate, when you have 50 Democrats, every one is the president,” he said.
Despite clear compromises on some of his key agenda items, Biden expressed optimism Thursday that Democrats in Congress would reach an agreement on his administration’s bipartisan infrastructure package and a budget reconciliation bill.
“I do think we’ll get a deal,” Biden said.
Biden made clear to Democrats this week that his goal is to have a locked-in framework agreement that would clear the way for a House vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill before he arrives at the United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow in less than two weeks.
During the town hall, however, he declined to say if he thought Democrats would pass either bill before he departs for Rome on Wednesday for the G20 Leaders Summit.
Tackling the filibuster to labor shortages to Covid-19
“We’re gonna have to move to the point where we fundamentally alter the filibuster,” Biden said, adding that it “remains to be seen exactly what that means in terms of fundamentally — on whether or not we just end the filibuster straight up.”
And he touched on efforts to secure the supply chain, recover from the pandemic, address inflation and remedy the labor shortage.
Biden attributed the labor shortage to a number of factors, including prospective employees’ demands for higher wages and lingering fears about the pandemic. And he suggested that inflation may not be a long-term issue if his legislative priorities are passed.
Pressed on whether he’d deploy the National Guard to alleviate pressure on the nation’s truckers amid shortages, Biden said, “The answer is yes, if we can’t move, increase the number of truckers, which we’re in a process of doing.”
A White House official shortly after, however, told CNN the administration is not actively considering deploying the National Guard to help ease the supply chain gridlock, despite the President’s comments. “Requesting the use of the National Guard at the state level is under the purview of governors and we are not actively pursuing the use of the National Guard on a federal level,” the White House official said.
The President said during the town hall that he believes police officers and first responders who refuse the Covid-19 vaccine should be forced to stay at home or be let go. The decision to implement those employment restrictions remains largely up to cities and municipalities.
Biden also walked back his past comments to members of the press suggesting individuals who refuse subpoenas from the House select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol should be prosecuted by the Justice Department.
“I should have chosen my words more wisely,” Biden said during the town hall.
“One of the things I was committed to do when I ran was, reestablish the reputation and integrity of the Justice Department,” the President said, adding, “I did not, have not, and will not pick up the phone and call the attorney general and tell him what he should or should not do, in terms of who he should prosecute.”
This story has been updated with additional details from the town hall.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Allie Malloy, DJ Judd, Kate Sullivan, Jason Hoffman, Manu Raju, Phil Mattingly and Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.