‘Keep talking’: How a simple philosophy helped lead to a White House celebration



CNN

Steve Ricchetti never stopped talking to Joe Manchin.

While negotiations on President Joe Biden’s core economic and climate legislation were defined by high-profile collapses, too much was at stake to allow a breakdown in relations with the West Virginia senator.

The day after Manchin appeared on Fox and inserted a stake into the heart of Biden’s broad proposal, Ricchetti — one of Biden’s closest and longest-serving aides — was on the phone with him again.

When news broke that Manchin had pulled the plug on the revival talks in mid-July over a watered-down version of the proposal, Ricchetti spoke with him hours later.

After Manchin got word that things were not as dire as he had presented, the calls between the two would continue for four of the next five days as backroom negotiations between Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer continued.

The proposal, again marked dead by Washington predictors, would end in a deal that surprised many in the White House and some of Schumer’s closest allies.

“What gets lost in the daily hyperventilation or process analysis is that, good or bad, you always pick up the phone the next day and keep talking,” Ricchetti told CNN in an interview.

Protracted negotiations underscored the reality of tenuous majorities in the House and, for the most part, the Senate. For a White House with an extensive to-do list in 2022 — including the confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee, a major spending deal and a number of bipartisan bills that gained momentum — alienating a single vote was not a viable option.

The calls — and the quiet duration — are indicative of the approach that helped steer the White House in the face of growing questions and inquiries about Biden’s future at a time when Democrats are unlikely to ramp up momentum heading into the midterm elections.

Officials consider the Anti-Inflation Act, which was celebrated at the White House on Tuesday, critical evidence of what has long been the theory of Biden’s case: his approach, even if it has sometimes been seen as a relic of a political era. doesn’t exist anymore, it can work.

The president’s party still faces political headwinds. History does not look favorably on a president’s first midterm election, especially one in which his party controls both houses of Congress. Economic concerns remain high amid inflation that, while showing signs of easing, remains at four-decade highs. Republicans have attacked Biden’s signature legislative achievement as a sweeping spending proposal that will only serve to accelerate that effect.

The bill, which was signed into law in August, received a much-anticipated celebration on the South Lawn on Tuesday. It was a carefully planned moment by White House officials to highlight the sweeping nature of a bill that addresses long-elusive Democratic priorities on medicine, health care and climate change.

The event played out with a weird split-screen moment where Biden spoke about the bill as the stock market closed on a devastating day. Stocks fell – the Dow fell 1,200 points – as a report on Tuesday indicated that inflation was slower than expected in August, unnerving investors.

Still, Biden unveiled the bill to a packed crowd on the South Lawn of the White House.

“Today proves that the soul of America is alive, the future is bright, and the promise of America is real,” Biden said.

“When I look at this lot, I see leaders who are putting the American government back to work…elected officials who were willing to endure the criticism of many who were willing to spend millions of dollars in attack ads from special interest employers. to fight the climate. This is your victory.”

The celebration was the start of a remarkable period of Biden’s legislative success, which included two bipartisan bills: a $280 billion manufacturing and science package and a law designed to dramatically expand health care for veterans battling illnesses related to toxic burn exposure. Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Biden’s team, the accomplishments were the culmination of more than 18 months of work and relationship building. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain was on the phone regularly with Schumer. Louisa Terrell, Biden’s head of legislative affairs, quarterbacked the operation and was the main liaison on Capitol Hill for the various issues (whether technical, political or parochial) that encouraged the individual lawmakers involved in the process.

Brian Deese, director of Biden’s National Economic Council, served as the Biden team’s critical policy negotiator, as proposals were reviewed and tweaked in real time to secure votes.

The overall approach drew criticism at times, particularly from moderate wings of the party, for being too beholden to the weight of the larger progressive voices within the House and Senate Democratic parties.

But the summer’s gains — along with the biggest gun bill in three decades, the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill and the $1.9 trillion American Recovery Act — represent a remarkable record of legislative success that Biden has enthusiastically touted at country events. . Some of the most threatened front-line Democrats, long concerned about undermining the White House’s plans to ensure legislative success, have continued.

“The American people need to have confidence that we’re on the right track, that we’re seeing real progress,” Biden said Monday at an event for his legislature in Boston, highlighting the infrastructure law.

At Biden’s behest, Ricchetti made sure to keep the lines of communication open with Manchin. As frustration bordering on bitterness grew within the West Wing over the process and decision-making in West Virginia, it was the president who made it clear that it was a process that required White House officials to backtrack, which Biden would bring home to the chamber he had called. 36 years of independent work space.

“At some point, the late-night Oval Office meetings and the ‘is it, is it not,’ it gets very adversarial,” one Democratic senator told CNN of the moments that defined the first year of negotiations over Biden’s proposal. “(Biden) got it, and that’s no mean feat.”

It’s no small feat that Manchin’s approach, despite the frustration it may have generated from some of his colleagues, never fully closed the door on a deal, and he held no grudges despite clear tensions between the critical Democratic vote and White House staff. . Klain, who had become the target of Manchin’s private ire, had a private dinner with Manchin as talks began to get underway.

However, Manchin made it clear that his negotiations were not with Biden or the White House staff. Biden’s team would play a central role in helping with the technical and political details, but Biden would not be a central player. That was both a necessity and a design.

“He knew exactly when to step in and when to let the negotiations play out,” Schumer said at Biden’s August bill signing event.

For the White House, the moment became one of creating the conditions for a deal. With Biden not taking the lead in the talks and deferring to senators, especially Schumer, the approach focused on making sure nothing derailed progress.

Cabinet officials kept in regular contact with Manchin about his priorities outside of the bill. The administration made pilgrimages to West Virginia to highlight several priorities. Deese, who primarily served as a key contact for Manchin’s staff, went ziplining with Manchin near the New River Gorge.

Administration-wide environmental actions were seen through Manchin’s lack of concern. The West Virginian never specifically asked the administration to waive certain actions in exchange for his vote, but officials were well aware of his preferences.

The historic climate provisions in a recent deal were believed to outweigh any near-term concerns, officials said. There were proposals that had been worked out and were ready to be released when the talks seemed to break down again in mid-July.

But just as Biden appeared to be about to declare a national emergency over climate change, he stopped short. Unbeknownst to anyone, the conversations between Schumer and Manchin resumed.

It’s as natural as Ricchetti’s point would be for Biden to keep the talks alive. A longtime Washington hand as an aide to President Bill Clinton, a lobbyist and with significant legislative experience as Biden’s vice president, Ricchetti quickly became indispensable to the president’s legislative agenda because of his connections with Republicans and moderate Democrats.

But he and Biden were also the only two people in the West Wing who saw a path to success in the $740 billion economic and climate package, officials acknowledged.

The process of bringing things back to life after the December implosion was neither immediate nor certain.

“We continued to work on the things that were in front of us and we were in contact and respectful dialogue,” Ricchetti said. “And it also took some time to think if there was really a way to get back into it, and what kind of basket could he have in there?”

The shape of the reduced legislation was largely worked out in the initial round of talks: Prescription and Affordable Care Act subsidies were largely done. The climate package was also roughly sketched out, as were tax changes to finance the approach. Critically, given Manchin’s stark concerns about inflation and the deficit, the funding would include trillions in deficit reduction.

The overview, particularly on the environmental side, marked a window into what will be a critical deal between Manchin, Schumer and the White House in a separate agreement to move legislation to reform the permitting process for energy projects.

Despite the objections of dozens of House Democrats to the introduction of the government funding legislation, the White House has never ruled out full approval of the proposal.

White House officials are still working to clear the way for the proposal.

As for Biden, the self-described “natural optimist” had many questions of his own about the path to a deal earlier this year, according to two people who spoke with him at the time.

But having signed the bill into law last month, there was nothing more to do than have fun with the senator, making what seemed like a long-held ambition a reality.

“Joe,” Biden said to Manchin at the signing ceremony. “I never doubted it.”