Calls can arrive late in the day, over the weekend, really anytime a question pops into the mind of a legislator or assistant. Meetings can do without the bonuses of the Biden team, or be difficult. The issue can be an arcane fact or a deep immersion in the nuances of politics.
While President Joe Biden presents his infrastructure plan to the American public with events at an Ohio university, a Ford plant in Michigan, or an aging Louisiana bridge, this is where the real work of deliver your legislative agenda: on phone calls to Capitol Hill during Zoom meetings and during the occasional cup of coffee with members of your legislative affairs team.
Biden’s 15-person legislative team is tasked with maneuvering and plotting the process to get its agenda approved on Capitol Hill. Led by Capitol Hill veteran Louisa Terrell, the team has had a vast footprint during Biden’s first months in office, holding more than 553 phone calls or meetings with lawmakers, their chiefs of staff and chief of staff. focused on the American Jobs Plan only, the Biden infrastructure package, starting May 21st.
His work on the massive coronavirus relief law passed in March helped Biden keep progressives and moderates on board, with no defects and few public complaints.
They now face much bigger hurdles trying to start Biden’s infrastructure bill through Congress, with many other difficult issues piled up in the back queue. Recently, the legislative team, which is trying to keep a low profile, was caught in the crossfire of negotiations as Republicans accused White House aides of contradicting Biden’s commitment in private meetings to support a much smaller counteroffer. .
“It went wrong,” Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said of a meeting with the Biden legislative team, “because it had nothing to do with the meeting we had with the chief executive of the land.”
The result seemed to further diminish the prospects of a bipartisan agreement on the bill. And the outlook didn’t seem to improve towards the holiday weekend despite a wave of offers and counter-offers.
Biden’s decades of experience as a senator and vice president make him well suited to lead negotiations with Capitol Hill, but they also leave him deeply aware of the limitations of the narrow democratic majorities in the House and Senate.
Overall, however, the attention of his legislative team has won praise from lawmakers.
Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, who calls himself a “pretty tough boss” in legislative discussions, says he has had numerous calls at night and on weekends with the team over several bills.
“I’m a pretty intense member, so I want more than discussion points,” he said.
Warner took note of his long-standing relationship with several team members: he said he tried to hire Terrell once and used to play basketball with Biden’s assistant Steve Ricchetti.
Terrell worked as Biden’s deputy chief of staff in the Senate and as special aide to President Barack Obama on legislative matters, and two of his deputies – Reema Dodin and Shuwanza Goff – had long careers with Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill.
In an interview, Terrell said that these relationships have helped sharpen the sometimes difficult task of approaching a skeptical legislator, because when a team member has to “give more love and attention” to a legislator, “it doesn’t come out from the left field “.
“It really comes from a place of someone who knows them or has existed and has a reputation for credibility and authenticity,” he said.
Active engagement with lawmakers comes from an ethos established by the president himself, who spent nearly four decades in the Senate. Terrell said the president has advised the team to follow his own personal philosophy that “politics is personal” and “you have to invest in building a real relationship – don’t just call people when you need them “.
Biden, he said, has a hand in his entire legislative strategy and in thinking about possible “leverage points” with lawmakers.
“There is no one who knows Congress better than the president,” he said.
Biden is known to play an active role in the fight, taking the temperature of the legislators in question and trying to help the negotiations. He recently invited two key moderate Democrats, Mr. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mr. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, to the White House for individual meetings on his infrastructure package.
He maintains a particularly close relationship with Manchin, who remains the most important vote in the Senate. Manchin has said he has spoken to Biden by phone more than half a dozen times since he became president, and that the two exchange calls “as often as necessary.” Beyond that, the senator’s wife, Gayle Manchin, received an appointment from Biden to co-chair the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development association involving the federal government and 13 states.
Terrell said the president’s personal relationships with lawmakers, along with his knowledge of past legislative fights, offer the team a “surprising advantage” as they seek agreement on thorny issues.
“He remembers and knows well about all the different types of iterations, and when there were fights on the ground and when there were breakthroughs and what caused them, and what really motivates many of those members,” he said.
In addition to Terrell and the out-of-White House legislative affairs team, Biden has delegated several secretaries to his cabinet – dubbed as his cabinet – to help him sell his infrastructure plan. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg and others are sometimes taken to work with a particular legislator or to address a specific concern.
Many of Biden’s top aides are heavily involved in selling their plans to lawmakers. A White House aide said economic adviser Brian Deese speaks to lawmakers so often he could also have his own office at the Capitol.
This extensive equipment has its advantages and disadvantages. While Warner said he can respond quickly to his calls and questions, he added that even after months of working with the White House, “I’m not 100% sure who makes the decisions” to the administration .
“So this probably empowers the legislative team even more because it’s not like you can surround them,” he suggested.
While Terrell’s team has the advantage of years of experience at Capitol Hill, it has faced a major handicap: the COVID-19 pandemic that banned in-person meetings and social gatherings, where traditionally performs the most important legislative task.
Phil Schiliro, who served as Obama’s director of legislative affairs, recalls holding weekly social events for lawmakers, including a candlelit dinner at the White House for committee chairs, class members and their spouses and a picnic at the White House where he sat in a tank while members threw balls to sink him.
“If it helped me get votes, I would be happy to do it,” he said.
“Much of the work is to interact with members of Congress and staff, face to face, exchanging information. And not being able to do it is a bit like making your way through a maze with your eyes covered and your gloves on, ”he said.
Terrell recalls her work at the Obama White House taking her to Capitol Hill “every day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” where “you were able to really have all these spontaneous, authentic conversations.”
Now, “it’s a big deal not to have the Senate chef open,” he said, referring to a cafe in the basement of Hart’s Senate office building.
“This is where you could grab a director or head of the Senate cabinet, or a member, and say,‘ Hey, let’s have a cup of coffee for two seconds. I know you’re between meetings. I want to know what you’re thinking of X. Or “What can we do to help you Y?” He recounted.
Now, he said, interactions with staff and members “are very deliberate” and are largely done by phone and Zoom, which “are much harder to do.”
Eventually, however, as pandemic-era public health restrictions are reduced, some of this face-to-face activity returns. Recently, Biden was able to ease one of the traditional traps of the presidency when he invited six lawmakers to be around him while signing a bill that dealt with hate crimes against Asian Americans.
They approached, masked and smiled, while Biden smiled and handed each one a pen, the presidential symbol of the job well done.