President Joe Biden is relying on his Capitol Hill years to convince former colleagues to move quickly on his debut legislative effort, waging an intensive push for the sweeping Covid-19 rescue package he hopes can garner Republican support.
He’s told Democrats over a series of meetings he’s willing to reconsider some aspects of his plan, in particular whether to more narrowly target direct payments going to Americans.
“I think we can better target the number,” he told House Democrats in a morning telephone call, according to audio of the call obtained by CNN’s Manu Raju.
But in most other areas he hasn’t budged. And in some conversations he has warned against getting strung along by Republicans in a repeat of the opening days of the Obama administration.
The mindset of the senator-turned-president has been on full display this week, with Biden welcoming 10 Republican senators to the White House on Monday, dialing into the Senate Democratic weekly lunch on Tuesday and calling House Democrats and inviting the leaders of key Senate committees to the Oval Office on Wednesday.
Since being sworn in two weeks ago, Biden has invited more than one-fifth of the Senate to fireside meetings in the Oval Office. He’s held smaller but lengthy sessions at the White House with longtime allies and surprised Republicans with private phone calls to discuss the plan.
While the ultimate outcome of the flurry of outreach remains an open question, given negotiations over the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill are in their earliest stages, it represents the biggest burst of legislative activity from both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue in years.
“I think we’ll get some Republicans,” Biden said at the start of his Oval Office meeting on Wednesday, though he did not expand on his hopes for a bipartisan result.
Earlier in the day, the President signaled to lawmakers he’s unwilling to wait for Republicans to come along and has said he’s unwilling to entertain the GOP Covid-19 relief package that comes in at nearly a third of the cost of his own. And though it remains Biden’s impulse to convince some Republicans to support his plan, Senate Democrats are laying the groundwork for passing relief without any Republican votes using a procedural shortcut known as budget reconciliation.
“I’m not going to start my administration by breaking a promise to the American people,” he told Democratic House members during the morning telephone call, saying it was “not in the cards” to get behind Republicans’ $618 billion package after proposing a $1.9 trillion bill himself.
“We’ve got a lot of people hurting in our country,” he said on the call. “We need to act fast.”
But he also warned his party about the dangers of engaging in intraparty battles, contending their strength is in their unity with narrow majorities in both the House and the Senate.
“We a hold a small majority in the House, and the barest majorities in the Senate, and we’re gonna succeed or fail together,” Biden said. “There have been three Democratic presidents in 28 years. Each one faced a tough midterm loss that cost a lot. It happened in ’94 and it happened in 2010. We don’t want to let that happen here. So, let’s stick together.”
As he enters the third week of his presidency, Biden is making clear that he intends to be at the heart of any deal-making on what he hopes will be his first signature piece of legislation. And Biden has shown that he respects the legislative branch, rather than viewing it as a subsidiary of his party or administration, which former President Donald Trump often suggested.
The fact that Biden has returned to an entirely different Washington is underscored in myriad ways, including the fact that only 31 current sitting senators — less than one-third of the chamber — served with him before he was elected vice president in 2008.
Of the 10 Republicans that Biden met with on Monday, he served only with Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. He has relationships with others, including Rob Portman and Mitt Romney, but did not serve with them in the Senate.
Yet of the 10 Democratic committee chairmen and leaders he huddled with on Wednesday, Biden overlapped with eight of them during his 38-year tenure in the Senate, which affords him far more familiarity with the key players as his plan heads down a path known as reconciliation.
The President’s advisers say he made a decision to become more directly involved in the talks than even he had initially planned, believing that he could help jumpstart the negotiations. In one-on-one conversations over the last two weeks, Biden heard from lawmakers who had been starved of presidential attention over the past four years.
“It’s his instinct to negotiate,” a top Democratic official outside the White House tells CNN, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe Biden’s private dynamic with his aides. “Whether they want him to or not, he will be involved.”
The President and his aides have cast their proposal as an urgently needed injection of funds for a lurching vaccine rollout plan and a jolt for a moribund economy. Included in the measure is billions for vaccines, direct $1,400 payments to households, funding for school reopening and more aid to small businesses affected by the pandemic.
Biden has stated the greater risk is passing something too small rather than approving too much aid.
Delaware Sens. Chris Coons and Tom Carper, both Democrats, met with Biden for nearly an hour Wednesday morning on a wide range of issues.
Amid the push for a bipartisan Covid relief bill in the Senate, Coons said he provided “insight and feedback on what we’ve heard from our Republican colleagues and what’s possible while still keeping an eye on the urgency of relief.”
There was a recognition during the conversation, Carper noted, that “to the extent that we can work with our Republican colleagues, then let’s do that.”
“At the end of the day, if we can’t, then that’s fine, but I am thrilled that the President met with Susan Collins and nine of my colleagues this week and we encourage more of that discussion,” he said.
For Biden, like all new presidents, the clock is already rapidly ticking toward the mythical 100-day mark of his term that is an early metric of progress. But even before taking office, Biden bristled at the notion that a honeymoon period even exists anymore.
“I don’t think it’s a honeymoon at all,” Biden told reporters in December, speaking of the urgency surrounding the Covid-19 relief bill. “I think it’s a nightmare that everyone is going through and everyone wants it to end.”
He also dismissed suggestions that his approach to bipartisanship was naïve.
“You have a different team in town,” Biden said. “I’m not going to villainize the opposition.”
After a long career in Washington that spanned nearly a quarter-century, one thing remains the same: success is judged on the outcome of negotiations, not the frequency of presidential meetings.