Vermont senator calls for Biden to quit race, while Pelosi warns ‘time running short’

U.S. President Joe Biden’s imperilled re-election campaign hit new trouble Wednesday, as House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi said merely “it’s up to the president to decide” if he should stay in the race, celebrity donor George Clooney said he should not run, and Democratic senators and lawmakers expressed fresh fear about his ability to beat Republican Donald Trump.

Late in the evening, Vermont Sen. Peter Welch called on Biden to withdraw from the election, becoming the first Senate Democrat to do so. Welch said he is worried because “the stakes could not be higher.”

The sudden flurry of grave pronouncements despite Biden’s determined insistence he is not leaving the 2024 race puts on public display just how unsettled the question remains among prominent Democrats. On Capitol Hill, an eighth House Democrat, Rep. Pat Ryan of New York, and later a ninth, Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, publicly asked Biden to step aside.

“I want him to do whatever he decides to do,” Pelosi said Wednesday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, rather than declaring that Biden should stay in. While Biden has said repeatedly that he’s made his decision, she said, “We’re all encouraging him to make that decision because time is running short.”

It’s a crucial moment for the president and his party, as Democrats consider what was once unthinkable: having the incumbent Biden step aside, just weeks before the Democratic National Convention that is on track to nominate him as their candidate for re-election.

U.S. President Joe Biden arrives at the Washington-hosted NATO summit on Wednesday. (Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press)

Biden is hosting world leaders in Washington for the NATO summit this week with a crowded schedule of formal meetings, sideline chats and long diplomatic dinners, all opportunities to showcase he is up for the job despite a worrisome performance last month in the first presidential debate with Trump.

His party at a crossroads, Biden faces the next tests Thursday — in public, at a scheduled news conference that many Democrats will be watching for signs of his abilities, and privately, as his top advisers meet with the Senate Democratic caucus to discuss their concerns and shore up support.

“We cannot unsee President Biden’s disastrous debate performance,” Welch said in a Washington Post opinion piece published Wednesday evening.

The first-term senator said it is “with sadness” that he is calling on Biden to withdraw.

Pelosi’s influence

To be sure, Biden maintains strong support from key corners of his coalition, particularly some in the Congressional Black Caucus on Capitol Hill, whose leadership was instrumental in ushering the president to victory in 2020 and is standing by him as the country’s best choice to defeat Trump again in 2024.

Nancy Pelosi, the former U.S. House Speaker, is seen attending a dinner with NATO foreign ministers, held in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday evening. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

“At this moment, the stakes are too high and we have to focus,” Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota told The Associated Press on Tuesday, saying Democrats are “losing ground” the longer they fight over Biden’s candidacy.

Pelosi has been widely watched for signals of how top Democrats are thinking about Biden’s wounded candidacy, her comments viewed as important for the party’s direction as members weigh possible alternatives in the campaign against Trump.

Because of her powerful position as the former House Speaker and proximity to Biden as a trusted long-time ally of his generation, Pelosi is seen as one of the few Democratic leaders who could influence the president’s thinking.

The lack of a full-throated endorsement from Pelosi backing Biden’s continued campaign is what lawmakers are likely to hear most clearly, even as she told ABC later she believes he can win. Her remarks came as actor Clooney, who had just hosted a glitzy Hollywood fundraiser for the president last month, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that the Biden he had seen three weeks ago wasn’t the Joe Biden of 2020.

WATCH l Michael Bennet says bigger stakes are at play:

Democratic senator says people around Biden have ‘moral obligation’ to tell him hard truths

Sen. Michael Bennet praises U.S. President Joe Biden’s accomplishments and understands his difficult position, but says the risks of another Trump presidency are too high.

Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, spoke forcefully late Tuesday about the danger of a second Trump presidency, and said it’s for the president “to consider” the options.

Stopping just short of calling for Biden to drop out, Bennet said on CNN what he told his colleagues in private: that he believes Trump “is on track to win this election — and maybe win it by a landslide and take with him the Senate and the House.”

Bennet stressed that the Nov. 5 vote isn’t just about the Oval Office, but the Senate — where Democrats need to defend their slimmest of margins in a slate that is extremely challenging for the party — while trying to regain control of the House of Representatives after a sometimes chaotic two years with Republicans in charge in that chamber.

The influential Cook Political Report released new data on Tuesday that figured to give the party pause, with Republicans extending a polling lead in some states, and others now seen as less secure for Democrats.

‘I support President Biden’

Democrats have been reeling over whether to continue backing Biden after his poor showing in the June 27 debate and his campaign’s lacklustre response to their pleas that Biden, at 81, show voters he is ready for another four-year term.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York expressed his support for Biden’s candidacy when he spoke with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. (Cliff Owen/The Associated Press)

Biden and his campaign are working more intently now to shore up support. The president met with labour leaders Wednesday, relying on the unions to help make the case that his record in office matters more than his age.

While more House Democrats have publicly called on Biden to end his candidacy, Welch is the only Senate Democrat to go that far. Bennet was among three Democratic senators, including Jon Tester of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who spoke up during a private lunch Tuesday, a person familiar with the meeting told The Associated Press. They were granted anonymity to discuss it.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer invited Biden’s campaign to address senators’ concerns, and redoubled his backing of the president.

“As I have made clear repeatedly publicly and privately, I support President Biden and remain committed to ensuring Donald Trump is defeated in November,” he said late Wednesday.

The Democratic National Convention to nominate Biden is scheduled for Aug. 19, and the president would have to agree to release his delegates before another candidate could even be contemplated. Even then, the process would be complicated, and some Republican groups have promised lawsuits over ballot access — which is determined at the state level — for any candidate not named Biden.

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