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

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

The Democratic president has vowed to stay in the race against Republican 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 that the stakes of the election are momentous — challenging no less than the foundations of American democracy — they’re wrestling with what to do about 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

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

One Biden ally, Rep. James Clyburn, on CNN Wednesday openly discussed holding a “mini-primary” in the run-up to the Democratic National Convention in mid-August.

After the debate last week, Clyburn had initially urged fellow Democrats to “stay the course” with Biden and “chill out,” but by Wednesday his tone had changed.

“I saw what I saw last Thursday night, and it is concerning,” said Clyburn, who is 83 years old.

In recent days, comments from Clyburn and other senior Democrats including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have provided signposts for a political party in crisis. Still, it was not clear whether their concerns were reaching Biden, who told aides on a Democratic National Committee call that “no one is pushing me out.”

Clyburn, a senior South Carolina lawmaker who is a former top party leader in the House, also had a lengthy call with Biden on Wednesday.

Pelosi, in an interview Tuesday on MSNBC, called on both Biden and Trump, who’s 78, to face tests for their health and mental acuity even though she also emphasized that Biden is on “top of his game, in terms of knowing the issues and what is at stake.”

“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, D-Calif., who’s 84.

Minutes after Pelosi’s comments on Tuesday, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, of Texas, became the first sitting Democrat in Congress to call for Biden to withdraw from the race.

“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.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., also told The New York Times on Wednesday that Biden had a “responsibility” to drop out of the race.

Lawmakers are also 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, Trump will win.

“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 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.”

After days of no direct talk between Biden and congressional leaders, the president late Tuesday and Wednesday held calls with Schumer and Jeffries, as well as Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who’s a close ally of the president, according to people briefed on the calls who insisted on anonymity to discuss them.

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 on Friday 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.”

Feeling it out

The June 27 debate infused a new dynamic into an election contest that had been marked by few surprises. Voters are 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 situation has only grown more unpredictable as Democrats contemplate the effects of replacing Biden at the top of the ticket.

Privately, rank-and-file lawmakers have been engaging in calls and conversations amongst themselves as they consider their message to the White House. Many are still holding back public remarks allowing Biden time to make his case in campaign stops and interviews in the days ahead. Many will closely watch his interview with ABC, the first since the debate, later in the week.

But some vulnerable House Democrats are already distancing themselves from the president.

Rep. Jared Golden, a moderate Democrat from Maine, argued the outcome of the election was a foregone conclusion.

“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.”

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

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