Biden’s Schmoozing of Congress Meets Harsh Reality of Washington


As President Joe Biden pushes ahead with sweeping plans to spend trillions of dollars on infrastructure and the U.S. social safety net, White House advisers are counting on his personal touch with Congress -- including chummy calls with lawmakers -- to win over skeptics in both parties.

He’s taken the lead in engaging with Senator Shelley Moore Capito, the top Republican negotiator on a bipartisan infrastructure package. But the hands-on lobbying is beginning to show its limits, as the White House on Friday rejected the latest GOP offer for being too small to address administration objectives. Biden’s pledge to keep talking -- with another call with Capito coming before Biden leaves for a Europe trip on Wednesday -- is adding to pressure among Democrats to forgo the Republicans.

“If the president can accomplish his goals through bipartisan agreement, then more power to him,” said Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. “But time is perishable here. People have been willing to give them some time, but time is running out on their own schedule.”

Van Hollen speaks as someone who’s directly experienced Biden’s outreach. The president called him earlier this year after seeing him on TV promoting his agenda and wanted to thank Van Hollen for fighting for his administration. The call of thanks was so unexpected that Van Hollen said he didn’t immediately pick up the phone.

It’s in keeping with Biden’s longtime modus operandi. He’ll sometimes call lawmakers if he sees a news article or an op-ed that mentions them, and he’s phoned Republican friends in the past when they won tough primary elections. Lately, he’s been reaching out to centrist Democrats, like Senator Joe Manchin, to make sure they’re okay with policy details.

Biden’s Schmoozing of Congress Meets Harsh Reality of Washington

‘Most Weight’

“That carries the most weight,” Capito said late last month of calls from Biden.

The next few days will prove whether Biden’s throwback style of deal-making -- honed during a 36-year-career in the Senate, much of it in an era of more amicable politics -- can still work in 2021.

His negotiating style is low-key and conversational, and he tries to be transparent about areas where he can give ground and those where he’s immovable, according to an aide who observed him in the Obama administration. He approaches each negotiation with less of a fixed mindset about what must happen and focuses instead on trying to find compromise, like the local Delaware politician he once was.

It’s not always efficient, the former Obama aide added, but for many years, the approach worked -- including an occasion in late 2012 when Biden as vice president cut a crucial deal with the GOP to avoid a potentially devastating “fiscal cliff.”

Biden’s Plan

Biden’s Schmoozing of Congress Meets Harsh Reality of Washington

But today, many Republican lawmakers see little benefit in working with the White House, as they aim to retake Congress in 2022. And some continue even to indulge the false claims of former President Donald Trump and his supporters that Biden’s election was illegitimate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared in one appearance last month he’s “100%” focused on stopping Biden’s agenda.

Even so, the administration has remained engaged across a broad front.

Top aides, including counselor to the president Steve Ricchetti, legislative affairs director Louisa Terrell and director of the National Economic Council Brian Deese, have spent weeks holding calls with congressional staff to hash out their plans and hosting briefings for lawmakers. Terrell’s office has conducted 33 bipartisan or Republican staff-level briefings. Ricchetti frequently texts or talks by phone with lawmakers.

The activity reflects Biden’s direction.

The ‘Hub’

“He is a hub of the wheel on this. He is very engaged, deeply engaged on this -- not only in just a status report way, but he is really going back and forth and thinking through the strategy and calendar,” Terrell said. “People need to remember that these are people he knows well. None of this is random. These are his co-workers.”

None of the outreach has produced visible progress over an infrastructure deal with Republicans. The GOP has balked at Biden’s proposals to raise corporate taxes to pay for the plan, and consistently pitched spending figures hundreds of billions of dollars below the administration’s position.

Progressive Democrats are frustrated by the amount of time spent courting Republicans and worry it’s eating into the timetable to achieve their agenda ahead of midterm elections next year.

Liberals say that now is the time to take advantage of their power in Washington and act, without ceding much to Republican demands.

Bygone Era

Republican lawmakers and aides say Biden is more conciliatory than his staff toward their positions, and at times they say they’ve observed a disconnect between what the president says behind closed doors and what his White House says in public statements, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Longtime lawmakers say partisan divisions have never been worse, following Trump’s effort to overturn his re-election defeat and his incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

“The country has changed, and the Congress reflects the country. When I got to Congress in 1993, I didn’t give a second thought to hanging out with the Republican from Missouri,” said close Biden ally and Democratic Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. “You don’t do that anymore.”

Even if Biden’s bipartisan outreach ultimately fails, the weeks of effort could help him demonstrate to key moderates including Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona that he had made a strong, good-faith effort to get Republicans on board. Manchin had insisted on such an initiative, and his vote would be crucial given the 50-50 split in the Senate.

‘Runway Left’

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that “there’s runway left” still for talks with Republicans. “It’s not unlimited but we have an opportunity.”

“He certainly is eager to see what that discussion can entail, knowing that in any discussion -- any negotiation -- both sides come closer together. That’s always the objective,” Psaki said in a Monday briefing on the upcoming Capito talks. Biden has “come down quite a bit, we’re looking to see more. Now, at the same time, there are a lot of paths forward here,” she said.

If congressional Democratic leaders keep to an objective of getting Biden’s long-term economic program enacted by the August recess, and decide to proceed without Republicans, they likely need to start the process this month.

Infrastructure won’t be the final opportunity for bipartisanship before the 2022 midterm elections. Republicans and Democrats will have to agree on annual federal spending bills for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, to avoid a government shutdown, but otherwise there’s little real pressure to compromise on anything, said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“Today’s world is far more competitive. Your base says, ‘Don’t you dare compromise on border security or other issues, hold out until you are in charge,’” she said. “The type of coalition that might have cemented a deal, that center is not there.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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