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Democrats in Congress are torn between backing Biden for president and sounding the alarm

President Joe Biden arrives to speak in the Cross Hall of the White House Monday, July 1, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Joe Biden arrives to speak in the Cross Hall of the White House Monday, July 1, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden's disastrous debate performance has reverberated across the Democratic Party, forcing lawmakers to grapple with a crisis that could upend the presidential election and change the course of American history.

The Democratic president has signaled he has no intention of dropping out of the race against Donald Trump despite the halting and uneven debate delivery that threw a spotlight on questions about Biden's age and capacity to be president. But as Democrats make the case the stakes of the election are momentous — challenging no less than the foundations of American democracy — they're wrestling with how to approach the 81-year-old who's supposed to be leading the charge for their party.

Here's how Democrats are handling the debate aftermath:

Raising alarm

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, of Texas, on Tuesday became the first sitting Democrat in Congress to call for Biden to withdraw from the race. He praised Biden but said he “has the opportunity to encourage a new generation of leaders from whom a nominee can be chosen to unite our country through an open, democratic process.”

“Recognizing that, unlike Trump, President Biden’s first commitment has always been to our country, not himself, I am hopeful that he will make the painful and difficult decision to withdraw. I respectfully call on him to do so,” said Doggett, who's 77.

Some other congressional Democrats have moved in recent days to outspoken concern not just over Biden’s performance during the 90-minute debate last week but also the level of transparency Biden’s team has offered about his mental fitness. They've tiptoed toward embracing the idea Biden should withdraw.

“Everybody is asking one question within the Democratic Party ... which is how do we defeat Donald Trump and how are we going to defeat the threat of authoritarianism,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, a prominent Democrat from Maryland, said on MSNBC late Tuesday.

He added that the question of whether Biden stays as the presidential candidate or Democrats select someone else “is a moving target. It has to happen quickly.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., told a local CBS-affiliated television station he was “horrified” by both Biden’s performance and Trump’s falsehoods during the debate.

“People want to make sure that this is a campaign that’s ready to go and win,” Whitehouse said. “That the president and his team are being candid with us about his condition — that this was a real anomaly.”

Some are concerned Biden’s weaknesses could tamp down potential voters’ enthusiasm, creating a ripple effect that hurts Democrats as they try to maintain a narrow Senate majority and take back control of the House. Down-ballot Democrats are already confident they can outperform Biden in swing races, but if large numbers of voters reject Biden, it could impact them.

While several vulnerable Democrats have stopped short of calling for Biden to withdraw, they've also cast the situation in stark terms: If Biden continues, he'll lose.

“The truth, I think, is that Biden is going to lose to Trump,” Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a Washington Democrat, told an ABC-affiliated television station. "I know that's difficult, but I think the damage has been done by that debate."

Backing Biden

With Biden’s family urging him to stay in the race, attention has turned to senior Democratic lawmakers who could potentially persuade the president to withdraw his nomination. So far, top Democratic leaders have mostly stood behind Biden in public statements.

“There have not been discussions among senior leadership about anything other than making sure we continue to articulate a compelling vision for the future to the American people related to the issues of importance around the economy,” House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries told reporters Monday in Pittsburgh.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, after the debate that it showed voters there was a choice between “four more years of progress, or four more years of attacks on our fundamental rights and our democracy.”

Biden was speaking with congressional leaders this week, the White House said Tuesday. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said they respected the opinions and thoughts of concerned party members, adding, “that’s what makes this party different than the other side.”

Many of Biden's allies have chided the news media for being fixated on Biden's mental capacities, arguing that instead the focus should be put on Trump's record of refusing to accept the results of the 2020 election he lost to Biden and repeatedly lying.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Texas Democrat who's part of Biden's campaign committee, conceded the debate wasn't what she hoped for but added, “I think there needs to be a real conversation about the things that Donald Trump said. It is beyond vile.”

Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., who was among Biden’s surrogates at the debate, dismissed concerns.

“We are 100% behind Joe Biden," he said Friday. "Crystal clear, end of story. He’s our nominee. So anything else outside of that is just political chatter.”

Feeling it out

The June 27 debate infused a new dynamic into an election contest that had been marked by few surprises. Voters were familiar with Biden and Trump and had previously decided between the two in 2020.

Still, many House Democrats were caught in a state of uncertainty as they faced a barrage of questions on the morning after the debate. Some chalked it up as little more than a bad night for Biden, but others are watching closely to see how voters react and whether Biden can execute a quick political recovery.

Rep. James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who helped Biden win the Democratic nomination in 2020, urged his party last week to “stay the course.”

By Tuesday, Clyburn was still supporting Biden for president, but he also told MSNBC that “Biden may decide otherwise.” Clyburn added that he would support Vice President Kamala Harris if Biden withdrew.

Clyburn and others like former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are recommending that Biden prove to the American people that he's ready for another four years in office by going out and taking tough interviews — something he has rarely done in recent years. Biden will sit for an interview with ABC, his first since the debate, later in the week.

Both Clyburn and Pelosi told MSNBC at midday Tuesday that they had not spoken directly with Biden since the debate. But Pelosi still emphasized that the president is on “top of his game, in terms of knowing the issues and what is at stake.”

She called on both Biden and Trump, who's 78, to face tests for their health and mental acuity.

“I think it is a legitimate question to say is this an episode or is this a condition. So when people ask that question, it’s legitimate — of both candidates,” said Pelosi, who's 84.

Meanwhile, rank-and-file lawmakers are watching to see how voter polls register the impact and whether it spills into down-ballot races. For months, vulnerable House Democrats have been distancing themselves from some of Biden’s policies. That phenomenon could become more pronounced after the debate.

Rep. Jared Golden, a moderate Democrat from Maine, was already looking for ways to convince potential Trump voters to support him.

“While I don’t plan to vote for him, Donald Trump is going to win,” Golden said in a Bangor Daily News op-ed. "And I’m OK with that.”


Associated Press writer Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.