WASHINGTON – Partway through a two-hour Oval Office meeting with President Joe Biden about his coronavirus relief package, several Republican senators thought they might have finally reached a breakthrough.
Biden’s plan provides $400 in additional weekly unemployment benefits until the end of September, while the alternative offered by a group of 10 Republican senators calls for $300 until the end of June – and the president seemed open to a compromise.
“Well, this is probably something we could talk about,” Biden said, according to Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., one of the attendees.
But minutes later, Capito said that Biden – who showed up wearing socks with little blue dogs all over them – seemed to have lost his interest in a deal, telling the group that when it came to unemployment insurance, “I’m definitely sticking with September.”
In the fight over covid relief legislation at the dawn of his administration, Biden’s historical bipartisan impulses clashed with his current sense of urgency in real time. He is a Senate veteran of 36 years, frequently in search of compromise and always in the market for a bargain. He is also a self-described wartime president facing down a deadly pandemic who believes that bold action is needed to address a crisis that will define his presidency.
By the end of the week, Biden signaled he had made his decision.
“I’ve told both Republicans and Democrats, that’s my preference, to work together,” Biden told reporters on Friday. “But if I have to choose between getting help right now to Americans who are hurting so badly, and getting bogged down in a lengthy negotiation or compromising on a bill that’s up to the crisis, that’s an easy choice. I’m going to help the American people who are hurting now.”
Sen. Christopher A. Coons, D-Del., one of Biden’s closest confidants and a longtime colleague, said that while the president deeply cares about bipartisanship, he won’t let that impulse prevent him from helping Americans struggling amid the pandemic.
“Who Joe is and who he’s been for decades is a Senate man, a person who wants to see the best in others, who if it’s at all possible wants to reach a reasonable, principled compromise,” Coons said. “But he’s perfectly clear that if he spends months and months chasing Republican partners who never emerge, he’s doing a real disservice to a country in crisis.”
Top White House advisers are eyeing the first week of March to get the administration’s $1.9 trillion covid relief package passed, ahead of a March 15 deadline when enhanced unemployment insurance benefits are set to expire.
White House advisers argue that Biden’s dueling impulses are not in conflict, but rather are complementary.
“He rejects the premise that these two things are mutually exclusive, that bipartisanship and speed are mutually exclusive,” said White House communications director Kate Bedingfield. “He is going to continue to pursue bipartisan support for the package, regardless of the mechanism.”
Reconciliation – a Senate maneuver that allows certain legislation to pass with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes usually required – does not preclude both bipartisanship and a big covid stimulus, Biden allies said.
Still, most lawmakers believe Biden will ultimately be forced to choose between a broadly bipartisan approach and the chance to pass the costly legislation that he believes is necessary to help the nation defeat a deadly virus that has killed more than 460,000 Americans.
Republicans increasingly fear that he plans to do so without any of their votes. They are already seeking to weaponize Biden’s campaign promise of unity against him, claiming his openness to pushing through a covid package with no GOP support means he was never sincere about working across the aisle.
Some of the Republicans who met with Biden last week also question whether Biden’s instincts are the same as those of top Senate Democrats – or even some of his senior advisers.
“I think he’s sincere about trying to heal and working together with Republicans, as he said,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “But I don’t think he’s getting good advice.”
Portman said that during Monday’s meeting, the instances where Biden seemed amenable to working with Republicans were undermined by the president’s own advisers.
“To the extent there was give and take, it was from the president himself – and then staff, you know, were not very supportive,” Portman said.
At times, Biden also seemed open to some of the Republican ideas, only to catch himself – making his ultimate goals unclear to those in the room, attendees said.
“It’s a give and take,” Capito said. “So, he was trying to give, I think, but he would rein himself back in, in the end. But it was interesting.”
Republican senators and others briefed on the meeting said Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, kept conspicuously shaking his head from his perch in the back of the Oval Office.
Klain disagreed when he thought the Republicans had their facts wrong, according to a senior administration official, or when he considered their proposals hypocritical.
Exasperated White House advisers insist there was no daylight between the president and his team and that, while he wanted hear the Republican senators out, he was also firm in his position. “Everyone is acting like this is indicative of the White House’s legislative strategy,” said one top adviser. “He shook his head in a meeting.”
“The president in this meeting was very respectful to every Republican who was there and to what they presented, and to their ideas,” said Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president. “But he was also very, very clear about the attachment that he had to every element of his plan – that he has chosen the amount for a reason … and he said there are some things where there’s just too big of a difference with their approach.”
Biden diligently read from notes to discuss the two plans, explaining the merits he saw in his and what he viewed as the problems in theirs, attendees said. When a Republican senator presented a topic, Biden often pulled out his notebook and, while offering own pushback, also seemed to consider their arguments.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, at one point gave a poster-board presentation arguing against additional funding for state and local governments – another moment, White House aides say, when Klain shook his head.
“While (Biden) didn’t fully accept it, he took the time to really understand the issue and didn’t shut down,” Capito said. “And I think that’s what we were amazed at, that he was just very engaged with it. And I don’t think it was some kind of an exercise that he was going through just so he could check the box. If that was the case, we’d have been out of there in 45 minutes.”
But if some moderate Republicans don’t fully trust that Biden is serious about pursuing bipartisanship, many Democrats fear that in his eagerness to work with Republicans, the president will cede too much to the opposition. There is also concern among some White House aides that Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va. – a moderate from a state that Biden lost by nearly 40 points – will successfully push Biden to lower the overall price tag of the bill.
Manchin has not helped the uncertainty, saying both that he supports Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus and that he would like the cost to be lower.
Biden has long had an uneasy relationship with the liberal wing of his party. But some of his top advisers are also conscious of lessons from the party’s experience at the start of Barack Obama’s presidency, when they spent weeks or months courting Republicans by making accommodations only to see their plans delayed, watered down – and, in the end, approved with minimal Republican support.
Speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Wednesday, Manchin said that Biden had bluntly told him, “I don’t want to go down the path we went down in 2009, when we negotiated for eight months and still didn’t have a product, and had to do what they’re doing now.”
The White House has been in frequent touch with Manchin. After his meeting with Republicans, Biden spent the rest of the week hosting top Democrats at the White House. In some cases, he has been handing out a newly minted challenge coin emblazoned with his home state of Delaware, along with “261st,” a reference to the Army National Guard brigade in which his late son, Beau, was deployed for a year in Iraq.
“The first box you’ve got to check in politics is to convince people not that they have to agree with you, but they have to believe what you’re saying,” said former senator Chris Dodd, a longtime Biden confidant who served with him in the Senate. “There’s no doubt that Biden really means what he’s saying.”
And one lesson that Biden learned in his decades in the Senate was that if he couldn’t work with someone on one issue, they could still work together on another. He often sparred with Republican senators like Jesse Helms or John McCain on certain pieces of legislation, Dodd recalled, while seeking them out on others.
Starting about 10 days before the inauguration, top Biden advisers began a quiet campaign to talk with officials around the country. They have held conference calls with mayors and local officials, and reached out to governors, both as a group and individually. More than a dozen senior administration officials have completed more than 100 national television, radio, and podcast interviews, an administration official said, and aides have also done over 30 local television interviews.
The aim, they say, is simply to start a dialogue – explaining their plan, eliciting feedback – but the tactical benefit is that it also places pressure on congressional leaders.
Toward the end of the week, White House officials were frustrated that Republicans hadn’t budged on any of the discussion items from the Monday meeting. Indeed, a response from the 10 Republican senators sent to the White House late in the week did not indicate fresh areas in which they were willing to compromise.
Administration officials view Biden as having a mandate from his decisive election victory to act quickly. They have been buoyed by recent polling showing Biden with a stronger approval rating than Trump ever had in his four years, and with broad support from the public for Biden’s coronavirus relief package.
“We are still hopeful and believe we’ll get Republican support,” Ricchetti said. “But even if we don’t … he’s going to call them back a week later, two weeks later, and we’re going to try to work with them again. If we don’t get them on that, we’ll try again a month later.”
The political atmosphere is far removed from the days when Biden the senator was closely associated with a group of centrist Democrats known as the “Blue Dogs,” who for a time were central players in brokering deals with Republicans.
The appearance of blue dogs on Biden’s socks during his meeting with Republicans appeared to be a coincidence, with no hidden bipartisan meaning, according to two senior advisers.
“It is extremely unlikely that was done with any subtle purpose in mind. I’m almost positive,” one of the advisers said. “It’s interesting. But accidental, I think.”
– – –
The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein contributed to this report.