'It's about to get wild': Congress returns for pivotal week as Democrats sweat over Biden (2024)

Darren Samuelsohn,Sarah D. WireUSA TODAY

'It's about to get wild': Congress returns for pivotal week as Democrats sweat over Biden (1)

'It's about to get wild': Congress returns for pivotal week as Democrats sweat over Biden (2)

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WASHINGTON - Capitol Hill is headed for a historic and pivotal week with the trajectory of the 2024 presidential campaign very much on the line.

Lawmakers return from their Fourth of July holiday recess with Democrats facing mounting questions about whether they will band together and urge President Joe Biden to nix his reelection campaign amid serious concerns the 81-year-old incumbent is not up to the job of serving four more years.

Time is short. Biden continues to blame a minor illness for his poor performance in the recent debate with presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and says that he has no intention of giving up his spot atop the Democratic ticket with a little more than a month to go before accepting his party’s nomination in Chicago.

The politics are expected to change come Monday when congressional Democrats who so far have been hedging in public over what they think Biden should do will be seeing their own colleagues face to face in the nation's capital. Over the last two weeks, everyone has been hearing directly from voters in their districts and states about the president’s mental fitness and capacity to keep doing his job.

“We’re in unprecedented territory, the likes of which we’ve rarely seen in this country,” Jim Manley, a former spokesman for Democratic Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., told USA TODAY. “Everybody should hang on because it’s about to get wild.”

Added Henry Waxman, a former House Democrat who served for 40 years in Congress: "This is a seminal moment, and I think the decision has to be made very soon."

One hand is still needed to count the number of elected Democratic lawmakers willing to call publicly for Biden to leave the 2024 campaign. But the list started growing in private on Sunday. Whether it adds up in a significant enough way to upend this year’s presidential campaign remains unclear, though party leaders acknowledge the coming days will be critical in assessing the path ahead.

“Let's just be honest, I think there are still questions out there in the minds of many voters,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Sunday on CNN. “I think there's no doubt that the president's performance at the debate has raised questions for voters, not questions about his character or his decency, or who he cares about or who he fights for, but questions as to whether this is still the old Joe Biden.”

So far, Biden has dismissed those who have been calling for his ouster. During an interview on Friday with ABC News, the president said he’d been speaking with lawmakers who have been encouraging him to stay in the race. Against that backdrop, Murphy called this upcoming week in Washington “absolutely critical.”

In an interview on Sunday, Waxman said he expected the number of lawmakers seeking Biden's ouster will get bigger once they're back in Washington. But the former congressman added that he's not sure yet what difference that would make with the incumbent president.

"It's just really trying to influence a man who he himself claims is quite stubborn," Waxman told USA TODAY.

Congress returns to Washington on Monday

Until now, elected officials have also been able to lay low and make news on their own time regarding Biden through scheduled interviews, their favorite social media, carefully-crafted statements and stage-managed events.

That changes on Monday, when the hallways of the U.S. Capitol are expected to be teeming with reporters eager to hear from Democrats in particular about whether they’re ready to break with Biden or stand by the undeniable leader of their party.

“I’m sure they won’t want to talk,” former Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican who spent more than four decades in Congress, told USA TODAY on Sunday. “They face a tough decision. They don’t want to be disloyal. They don’t want to hurt themselves politically in a presidential election year, but they’re going to have to face the reality of the situation of President Biden.”

Biden’s health and capacity to lead the country has been the source of nonstop behind-the-scenes discussions among party leaders and rank-and-file members since the June 27 debate against Trump. But those talks are anything but easy since posing the question of whether Biden should step down almost instantly becomes a larger conversation about how to (and who would) replace the president for Election Day, as well as what all of this means for the party’s chances in November in their races for the White House and in both chambers of Congress.

"This is not as clear cut as anybody wants it to be,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said on CNN on Sunday, noting that she heard from voters during the congressional recess that they don’t want Biden to drop out of the race.

Those internal Democratic conversations are going to start moving even faster in the hours and days ahead.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., huddled with key Democratic committee leaders on Sunday. The result: multiple media reports that Reps. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., Adam Smith, D-Wash., Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Joe Morelle, D-N.Y., wanted Biden to stand down. Members of the House return on Monday for an early evening series of votes. Across the Capitol, the Senate resumes business Monday afternoon and with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., presiding over a weekly policy lunch Tuesday with Democrats.

Neither Democratic leader has spoken up to any substantive degree about Biden's status. Democrats say it'll matter if and when they do since so many rank-and-file members are otherwise conflicted about speaking up in such a powerful and unprecedented way regarding their party's leader, the sitting president of the United States.

"I think Schumer and Jeffries weighing in on this would have a great deal of weight," Waxman said. "(Biden) has relied on both of them. He's relying on their wisdom and experience and he ought to take what they say very seriously."

Five House Democrats have called publicly so far for Biden to exit the 2024 race: Reps. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, Seth Moulton, D-Mass., Mike Quigley, D-Ill., Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Angie Craig, D-Minn. Craig made the ask after watching Biden’s interview with ABC Friday that was meant to temper concerns. In the Senate, Mark Warner, D-Va., is reportedly working to organize a group of his party’s colleagues who’d join him to ask Biden to exit the presidential race.

For the Democrats who have spoken up but not gone as far as saying Biden should outright go, many have expressed concerns about the president while saying that it’s his decision to make on whether it’s time to bow out. They also aren’t hiding their concerns about the 78-year-old Trump as the likely benefactor of the Democratic turmoil.

“Given Joe Biden's incredible record, given Donald Trump's terrible record, he should be mopping the floor with Donald Trump,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said on Sunday during an appearance on NBC’s "Meet the Press."

“Joe Biden's running against a criminal. It should not be even close, and there's only one reason it is close, and that's the president's age,” added Schiff, a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a floor manager during Trump’s first impeachment trial who is now a leading contender to win one of California’s U.S. Senate seats in November.

ABC interview doesn't satisfy Democrats

Biden’s interview Friday night with ABC News failed to assuage the internal party panic following his performance in the first presidential debate. Multiple times, the president insisted he wasn’t going anywhere in 2024.

In his Sunday interview, Schiff urged Biden to “slow down and take the time to make the right decision here that’s, that’s best for the country.” The California Democrat added that Vice President Kamala Harris, should she replace Biden in November, “very well could win overwhelmingly” against Trump.

“But before we get into a decision about who else it should be, the president needs to make a decision whether it’s him,” he said.

Several of Biden’s long-time allies in Congress now say the president needs to do multiple unscripted events this week to show that the debate performance was an aberration and not a sign of cognitive decline. “It is only through such a public process that he can demonstrate that (the debate) was simply an off night and that his past ability to define the issues and seek common sense solutions remains undiminished,” said a spokesperson for Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.

For the White House, Biden’s week ahead will be a full one. The president is hosting world leaders in Washington for the NATO 75th anniversary summit, a series of highly choreographed events that leave little room for the kind of presence many members of Congress want Biden to display to voters.

Biden is also looking beyond the seven days ahead to the following week when Trump will be in Milwaukee to accept his party's presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention. According to a White House official, Biden is planning to visit Austin, Texas, on July 15 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act at the LBJ Presidential Library. Then it's on to Las Vegas to address annual conferences on July 16 for the NAACP and on July 17 with UnidosUS.

The president held no public events on Saturday. On Sunday morning in Philadelphia, Biden huddled briefly on the airport tarmac with Pennsylvania’s two Democratic senators, Bob Casey and John Fetterman. He then spoke at the Mount Airy Church of God in Christ, using written notes at the largely Black church and making no reference to the calls to step aside.

During the church service, Senior Pastor J. Louis Felton had the congregation lock arms as he spoke about how "the enemy has tried for so long to divide us.”

“There’s no election that we cannot win," Felton said. He also spoke directly to Biden, adding, “Don’t let anybody talk about your age. You are a young whipper snapper.”

Contributing: Riley Beggin and Ken Tran.

'It's about to get wild': Congress returns for pivotal week as Democrats sweat over Biden (2024)

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