Biden seeks to prevent defections on Capitol Hill as lawmakers return

President Biden sought to prevent more Democratic lawmakers from defecting as they returned to Capitol Hill on Monday. In a letter, he wrote that he is “committed to staying in this race” and urged his party to move past the divisive debate over the merits of his candidacy.

“Believe me, I know better than anyone the responsibility and burden that our party’s nominee bears,” Biden wrote to congressional Democrats. “I can respond by saying clearly and unequivocally: I would not run for re-election if I did not absolutely believe I was the best person to defeat Donald Trump in 2024.”

On Monday night, members of the House and Senate will hold serious in-person talks for the first time since Biden’s lackluster June 27 debate performance shook many Democrats’ confidence in his candidacy. A significant number of Democratic lawmakers have publicly and privately expressed doubts that the president can convince voters he is up to the job and will serve another term.

Biden has stepped up his efforts to stop that debate.

“The question of how to move forward has been raging for more than a week. And it’s time for it to stop,” Biden wrote in his letter. “We have one job. And that is to defeat Donald Trump. We have 42 days until the Democratic convention and 119 days until the general election. Any weakening of resolve or lack of clarity about the task ahead only helps Trump and hurts us.”

Biden called into MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and hit back at the long list of prominent commentators who had called for him to drop out of the race. “I don’t care what these big names think,” he said. “They were wrong in 2020. They were wrong in 2022 about the red wave. They’re wrong in 2024.”

Biden made similar arguments in a call with some of his biggest donors, stressing that he won millions of votes in this year’s Democratic primary. “We’re done talking about the debate,” Biden said, according to a donor on the call, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation.

One donor said Biden was more forceful than he had been in previous days. “Donors are saying, ‘Better late than never,'” the person said, adding that they wished Biden had made such appeals to reassure his supporters in the days following the debate.

After his speech, Biden took part in a question-and-answer session to discuss the upcoming campaign and his plans to defeat Donald Trump in November.

The first question in the conversation was how Biden would change his preparation and framing of the next debate. “Attack, attack, attack, attack,” Biden replied. Another donor expressed gratitude that Biden was staying in the race and urged the president to “take Scranton Joe to the next debate, because Scranton Joe can beat Donald Trump.”

The relatively friendly formats Biden offered Monday did not reflect the turmoil that has rocked the Democratic Party in recent days, including on Capitol Hill. While several lawmakers have forcefully reaffirmed their allegiance to Biden, while others have spent the past week fretting about his future and expressing serious doubts that the 81-year-old can defeat Trump in November. (Trump is 78.)

On Sunday, nine House Democrats — four privately and five publicly — called for Biden to withdraw from the race. In addition, at least 18 current and former top Democrats on Saturday publicly expressed concerns about Biden’s fitness for office and his ability to defeat Trump.

Biden will only come under increased scrutiny this week. As he faces mounting pressure from Capitol Hill, the president is also hosting the 75th annual NATO summit in Washington, D.C., which European leaders had expected to be a largely celebratory event.

Instead, they will be watching Biden’s appearance and fitness with bated breath after the debate heightened concerns about the prospect of a second Trump term, which many NATO leaders dread. Biden is expected to deliver a speech on NATO on Tuesday, meet with several leaders and, in his most anticipated event, hold a solo news conference on Thursday. Biden is also expected to hold a campaign rally in Detroit on Friday.

Like Western leaders, members of Congress will be watching closely. Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a highly influential figure, is in listening mode and has so far kept his opinions on Biden’s situation to himself.

That includes Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who, like Jeffries, must balance his loyalty to Biden with congressional Democrats’ concerns about holding on to their seats if Biden runs into trouble in November.

The Biden campaign has significantly ramped up its outreach to Democrats on Capitol Hill in hopes of preventing more defections as lawmakers return, following grumblings from many members that they had not heard from the president amid the crisis over his candidacy.

Biden called 20 Democrats last week — including Schumer, Jeffries and Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) — to assure Democrats that he was hearing their concerns, a campaign aide said. He is expected to contact more lawmakers in the coming days.

Some Democrats are waiting to see how Biden does on the campaign trail and at the NATO summit before deciding whether to publicly call on him to end his reelection bid. Others say privately that they believe Biden’s ramped-up schedule — and his attempt to signal his determination to fight — is already too little, too late.

One House Democrat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to provide a candid analysis, said some Democrats were beginning to accept that Biden was deadlocked and unlikely to drop out of the race. The lawmaker said internal party polling is mixed on whether Biden could hurt Democrats’ chances of retaking the House and retaining control of the Senate.

Calls on Capitol Hill for Biden to step aside have so far come from the House rather than the Senate, and any change in that dynamic would be notable. Last week, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) tried to form a group that would go to the White House to force the president out, though those plans appear to have been shelved.

On Friday, Biden told ABC News that only the Lord Almighty could convince him to change his mind and drop out of the race, prompting some pushback from congressional Democrats over the weekend.

“I certainly respect the Lord, but this is a real-world decision for him and for everyday Democratic senators and members of Congress,” Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said in an interview Sunday. “As much as we want divine intervention, it’s going to elude us. So we have to act.”

In a preview of the divisive week ahead, 24 top Democrats on House committees participated in a virtual call with Jeffries, Minority Whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) on Sunday. Participants were divided over whether to defend or abandon Biden, according to three people on the call, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak openly about internal party deliberations.

“President Biden defeated Trump in 2020, and now, buoyed by his historic record of success, he will do it again in November,” Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) said in a statement after the call. “Republicans pose the greatest threat to the health of our democracy, our economy and our people, and the president knows what is at stake. I stand with him all the way.”

Democratic senators, long the president’s strongest base of support on Capitol Hill, have been quieter than their more vocal counterparts in the House. But behind the scenes, many senators share similar fears that Biden has run out of steam, according to multiple senators and aides who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the dynamics freely.

Warner, who has told people he doesn’t think Biden can beat Trump, has been quietly pushing for a group of Democratic senators to come together to devise a strategy to take Biden out of the race.

The Virginia Democrat’s preliminary plan to convene senators for an in-person meeting to discuss Biden’s future appears to have been scrapped after reports about the effort derailed plans, one senator said. Instead, Democratic senators are likely to discuss Biden’s prospects during their regularly scheduled lunch on Tuesday.

Many Democrats say privately that they remain concerned about the “what ifs” surrounding Biden: What if he makes another major verbal misstep after officially becoming the Democratic nominee? What if he continues to slide if he wins re-election, tearing down congressional candidates in the midterm elections two years from now?

Some House Democrats are still weighing whether to publicly urge Biden to withdraw, as feedback from local leaders and voters in their districts has been mixed. Some lawmakers also said their offices have fielded calls from constituents throughout the week, with some saying Biden should withdraw and others saying he should stay in the fight.

In the call with his donors, Biden said he would focus more on attacking Trump in the coming weeks. Biden and Trump are scheduled to debate again on Sept. 10, less than two months before Election Day.

Not everyone who wanted to ask a question got the chance, but those who did were largely supportive of the president, the donor said. “He’s not thinking about retiring, that’s for sure,” the donor said.

Hanging over the debate among Democrats is the fear that a second Trump term would be disastrous for the country, as Trump suggests he would target political opponents and disregard old norms even more than he did during his first term in the White House.

Some Democrats hope that it is precisely that fear that will ultimately unite the party.

“The fear of another Trump presidency, especially given how much more unhinged he’s become, is palpable,” said Rep. Deborah Ross (D-N.C.). “And so I think people are going to unite.”

Leigh Ann Caldwell and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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