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

Even though negotiations over President Joe Biden’s fundamental economic and climate legislation were defined by high-profile meltdowns, there was simply too much at stake to allow a breakdown in the relationship with the West Virginia senator.

When news broke in mid-July, appearing to show that Manchin had ended resurrected talks on a simplified version of the proposal, Ricchetti was on the phone with him hours later.

The proposal that Washington forecasters had once again marked for dead would end with a deal — a deal that stunned many in the White House and some of Schumer’s closest allies.

“What gets lost in the kind of daily hyperventilation or scrutiny of process is that no matter what — good or bad — you always pick up the phone the next day and keep talking,” Ricchetti said. to CNN in an interview.

The protracted negotiations underscored the reality of stretched majorities in the House and, especially, in the Senate. For a White House that had a long list of things to do in 2022 — including confirming a Supreme Court nominee, a major spending deal and a series of bipartisan bills that had momentum — alienating a single vote was not a viable option.

The calls — and the silent persistence — are emblematic of an approach that has helped pull a White House that faces polls and questions about Biden’s future at a time when Democrats are feeling improbable momentum leading to an election. mid-term.

Officials see the Cut Inflation Act, which will be celebrated at the White House on Tuesday, as key evidence of what has long been Biden’s theory on the case: that his approach, albeit at times considered a relic of a political era that no longer exists, can, in fact, work.

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

A long-awaited celebration at the White House

The bill, signed into law in August, will receive its long-awaited celebration on the South Lawn on Tuesday. It’s a moment White House officials have carefully planned to underscore the sweeping nature of a bill that addresses Democratic priorities on prescription drugs, health care and climate change that have long been out of date. out of reach.

The White House is planning for “thousands” of guests, including lawmakers, cabinet secretaries, governors and mayors. Biden’s message will also follow closely with a more aggressive tone toward Republicans that he has adopted in recent weeks, a tone that seeks to underscore the GOP’s united opposition to the legislation, according to a White House official.

The celebration will serve as a capstone to a remarkable period of legislative success for Biden, one that included two bipartisan laws — a $280 billion manufacturing and science package and a law designed to dramatically expand health care for veterans. battling diseases linked to toxic burn pit exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Biden’s team, the achievements marked the culmination of more than 18 months of hard work and relationship building. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain was on the phone with Schumer regularly. Louisa Terrell, Biden’s legislative affairs chief, spearheaded the operation and served as key Capitol Hill liaison for a myriad of issues — whether technical, political or parochial — that animated individual lawmakers engaged in the process. .

Biden’s National Economic Council Director Brian Deese served as the key policy negotiator for Biden’s team as proposals were reviewed and changed in real time to secure votes.

The blanket approach had at times drawn criticism, particularly from the more moderate wing of the party, for being too heedful of the weight of substantial progressive voices in the House and Senate Democratic caucuses.

But the summer’s victories — along with the first major gun law in three decades, the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure act and the $1.9 trillion U.S. payback law — represent a substantial record of legislative success that Biden eagerly highlighted at events around the country. Some of the most threatened frontline Democrats, who have long campaigned for the White House to scale back its ambitions for legislative success, have followed suit.

“The American people should have confidence that we’re on the right track, that we’re seeing real progress,” Biden said Monday as he went through his legislative docket at an event in Boston, highlighting the infrastructure law.

Do whatever it takes – even the zipline

It was under Biden’s leadership that Ricchetti ensured that the lines of communication with Manchin remained open. As frustration bordering on bitterness grew inside the West Wing over West Virginia’s process and decision-making, it was the president who made it clear that it was about a process that required White House officials to take a step back — one that would give the chamber that Biden had called home for 36 years the space to work alone.

“At some point, late-night Oval Office meetings and ‘will he, won’t he’ become extremely counterproductive,” a Democratic senator told CNN of the times that defined the first year of negotiations on Biden’s proposal. “(Biden) got it – and it’s not trivial.”

Nor is it insignificant that Manchin’s approach, despite the frustration it might elicit even from some of his own colleagues, never completely closed the door to a deal – and did not include hard feelings. despite the obvious tensions between the critical Democratic vote and the White House. Personal. Klain, who had become the target of Manchin’s private wrath, had a private dinner with Manchin as the talks resumed.

Yet Manchin made it clear that his negotiations were not with Biden, nor with White House staff. Biden’s team would play a central role in helping on technical and political details, but Biden would not be a central player. It was both a necessity and a design.

“He knew precisely when to step in and when to let the negotiations go,” Schumer said of Biden’s approach during the bill signing ceremony in August.

For the White House, it was about creating the conditions for an agreement. With Biden no longer taking the lead in the talks and deferring to senators, Schumer in particular, the approach was to ensure nothing would reverse progress.

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

Environmental actions across the administration have been seen from the angle of not disrupting Manchin. West Virginia never explicitly asked the administration to refrain from taking certain actions in exchange for its vote, but officials were acutely aware of its priorities.

They felt the historic climate provisions of a possible deal would far outweigh short-term concerns on the regulatory side, officials said. This included proposals that had been drafted and were ready to be rolled out when it emerged talks had collapsed again in mid-July.

But just as Biden appeared to be moving towards declaring a national emergency over climate change, he came to a halt. Unbeknownst to most people, talks between Schumer and Manchin had resumed.

“I never doubted”

That Ricchetti is leading Biden to keep the conversations alive is as natural as it is fitting. A longtime Washington hand with significant legislative experience as an aide to President Bill Clinton, as a lobbyist, and in Biden’s vice presidential office, Ricchetti quickly became indispensable to the president’s legislative operations due to his relations with moderate Republicans and Democrats.

But he and Biden were also about the only two people inside the West Wing who saw a path to success on what became the $740 billion economic and climate package, officials acknowledge.

The process of bringing things back to life following the December implosion was not immediate, nor a sure thing.

“We continued to work on the things that were in front of us and stayed both in touch and in respectful dialogue,” Ricchetti said. “And it also took some time to think about whether there was a possibility of really re-engaging on that – and what basket of things could be contained in that?”

The shape of the lean legislation was largely drafted in the first iteration of the talks – prescription drug reform and Affordable Care Act subsidies were largely done. The climate package was also roughly sketched out, as were the tax changes to finance the process. Importantly, given Manchin’s deep inflation and deficit concerns, the funding would include billions of dollars in deficit reduction.

The overall approach, particularly on the environmental side, marked a window into what would become a critical agreement between Manchin, Schumer and the White House on a separate deal to push through legislation to reform the project permitting process. energy.

Despite objections from dozens of House Democrats to including the government funding legislation bill for passage, the White House has never shied away from wholeheartedly endorsing the proposal.

White House officials continue to work to pave the way for the proposal.

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

But as he signed the bill last month, he wasn’t above having fun with the senator who ended up turning what seemed like a long-term ambition into reality.

“Joe,” Biden said while addressing Manchin at the signing ceremony. “I never had any doubts.”