Politics

Democrats on Capitol Hill express concerns about Biden in private but stay quiet in public

WASHINGTON — (AP) — After meeting for around two hours Tuesday to discuss whether President Joe Biden should remain at the top of their presidential ticket, Senate Democrats seemed to agree on one thing — it's best not to talk about it publicly.

Behind closed doors, several Democrats expressed deep concerns about whether Biden can win. But no Democratic senators publicly called for him to drop his reelection bid, underscoring the deep bind facing the party at a crucial juncture in the campaign. Democratic lawmakers are reeling from Biden's calamitous performance at the debate two weeks ago, yet the president has made clear, repeatedly and forcefully, that he has no plans to step aside.

Emerging from their meeting Tuesday, senators ducked into elevators, evaded questions, joked, and stated the obvious — that they all want to defeat former Republican Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee. But very few of them would comment on Biden’s future, whether they think he should remain the Democratic candidate, or what the Senate could potentially do about it. Some of them appeared resigned.

“People are all focused on winning right now,” said Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, who is in charge of Senate Democrats' campaign arm.

Can you win with Biden? “He’s our nominee,” Peters said.

There is “absolute unanimity” that we have to defeat Trump, said Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who would not say if Biden is the best person to do that.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, who reached out to colleagues last week in hopes of meeting to discuss Biden’s future, would only say the caucus lunch was a “constructive conversation.” He declined to elaborate.

Senators have been sharing their anxieties about the election in private for almost two weeks since the debate, but are reluctant about the ramifications of speaking out — especially if Biden stays on the ticket. As such, it is unclear if Democrats on Capitol Hill will be able to agree, at all, on whether Biden should remain their nominee.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, like many of his colleagues, has stuck with one line all week: “As I said before, I’m with Joe.” He repeated it three times in a row at a press conference after the lunch meeting, ignoring questions about whether Biden is still fit to run.

While it’s not unusual for the details of the weekly Senate party luncheons to be kept private, the evasiveness was extraordinary given the magnitude of the discussions over whether to try and push their own party’s president off the November ballot. Not only did senators decline to provide details of the closed-door party talks, but most also declined to give their own opinions on the subject.

Asked whether Biden should remain on the ticket, Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey said he's not a political analyst and “others might have opinions on that.” Casey, who is up for re-election in a critical swing state, said he thinks he and Biden will both win in November, but acknowledged, “it's going to be hard,” since he's in a close race.

As most remained quiet, one senator did decide to publicly express his views. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said on CNN Tuesday evening that he spoke up in the meeting and predicted that Biden can't win. “I did say that behind closed doors,” Bennet said. “Donald Trump is on track I think to win this election and maybe win it by a landslide, and take with him the Senate and the House.”

Several senators have said they think Biden should do more to prove that he can win, including Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the most senior Senate Democrat. Like Bennet, she stopped short of calling on him to exit the race.

“We need to see a much more forceful and energetic candidate on the campaign trail in the very near future in order for him to convince voters he is up to the job,” Murray said in a statement on Monday night.

And a few senators were vocal Biden boosters, including Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, who replaced Biden in the Senate and is one of his strongest allies, and Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, who has criticized his colleagues for doubting the president.

“Nothing’s changed,” Fetterman said after the meeting. “Joe Biden is our guy. He’s my guy. And he’s the only guy ever to kick Trump’s ass.”

And the mood in the room? “It was magic, like a Taylor Swift concert,” Fetterman joked. But he did not answer the question.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., says it’s important to keep the discussions private, so senators can talk honestly amongst themselves.

“It’s important that as a group of individuals that have really big responsibilities, that we can have confidential conversations,” Smith said. “God knows, we talk all the time, all over the place to all sorts of people. But it’s also important that in our group that we can have confidential conversations.”

There was a similar dynamic in the House earlier Tuesday, when Democrats met privately to discuss Biden. While several members who are supporting Biden’s candidacy spoke out and said so publicly afterward, very few members have come out to say he should end his reelection bid, despite making the case in the private meeting.

Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley was one of the few Democrats to say forcefully in public that he thinks Biden should step down.

“He just has to step down because he can’t win,” Quigley said. “My colleagues need to recognize that.”

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Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.

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