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How Joe Biden stiff-armed, then won over, House Dems

For 11 days this spring, President Joe Biden iced out his Democratic allies as he negotiated with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy over raising the nation’s debt limit.

With Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries at the table, Biden was convinced the talks had grown too unwieldy. The White House wanted to narrow the conversation, leaving other Democrats to steam.

Progressives openly criticized Biden. Allies, such as Congressional Black Caucus Chair Steven Horsford, vented that the White House needed to do more to communicate about Republican demands. Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal warned of backlash in the streets if Biden gave in to Republicans.

After the deal was announced Saturday night, his team went into overdrive to ensure that the frustration they’d sparked from within their party didn’t metastasize into a full blown revolt. Administration officials placed over 100 one-on-one calls with House Democrats. They held wonky virtual meetings over the negotiation details and took pointed questions on the policy they’d agreed to.

The ice-then-court strategy worked. On Wednesday evening, 165 House Democratic voted for the Biden-McCarthy bill, more than the 149 House Republicans who supported the measure. Many of those Democrats who had voiced opposition to the bill praised the White House for negotiating what they still consider to be a terrible piece of legislation and, ultimately, supported it.

It was a major victory for Biden, not just preventing an economic calamity that could have come with a debt ceiling breach but proving — five months into a divided government — that the White House and House Democrats have persevered through what seemed, at times, like a rocky relationship.

“It’s the most incredible thing,” Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said of the president, a close ally who Biden explicitly asked to help sell the bill in one of their regular conservations throughout the process. “I don’t know if he’s that lucky or that skillful. Whatever it is, it’s damn sure working.”

Not all Democrats left the process happy. Progressives, in particular, remained upset that the president backtracked on his pledge to not negotiate around the debt ceiling at all. But when it became clear that Republicans would not support a “clean” lift of the debt ceiling, Democrats said they felt a collective sense of being in the trenches.

That gave Biden some space to engage in negotiations. Helping matters was that the end deal exceeded expectations that the House Republicans had set after having successfully passed their own, far more conservative version of a debt ceiling hike in late April.

“We were operating with hostage takers who were attempting to take no prisoners. And I think Joe Biden, if I might say, did a miraculous and important job of holding off the tsunami,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who supported the bill. “We were in a bloody war. We were apt to get mutilated. We didn’t. We came out, we’re standing.”

The White House’s Hill outreach kicked off shortly after the deal with McCarthy was announced Saturday evening. Several White House officials — including chief of staff Jeff Zients, top adviser Steve Ricchetti, Office of Management and Budget director Shalanda Young, and legislative affairs director Louisa Terrell, among others — spent the bulk of their Memorial Day weekend on the phone with individual House Democrats. That was followed by six hours of policy-oriented virtual meetings with lawmakers and in-person appearances at caucus meetings by senior officials, according to White House officials granted anonymity to describe the behind-the-scenes blitz.

Once-skeptical Democrats took particular solace in the inclusion of Young, a former House staffer beloved throughout the caucus, in the negotiating room. Not part of the tight circle of longtime Biden advisers, she was viewed as both a credible messenger and trusted negotiator. Jeffries told reporters that she received a standing ovation during Wednesday’s caucus meeting even before she started to speak.

But it wasn’t just the quality of the messenger that mattered to House Democrats. It was the extensiveness of the briefings.

“The White House did something very smart: They spent two days with members, virtually, three hours a day for two days explaining, answering questions, responding,” Clyburn said, adding that he hadn’t seen that level of engagement on an issue since he was elected to Congress in 1993. “I think that’s what made the difference.”

Jeffries himself praised the White House’s communication with the Hill and White House officials say they kept in touch with leadership through the process. The full-bore outreach was needed after House Democrats showed initial displeasure at not being briefed about the deal immediately after it was announced Saturday. The White House also knew that Democrats would be called upon to deliver at least some votes for final passage in the House and couldn’t risk further revolt.

“I’ve been through about seven hours of briefings,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee. “We’ve had a pretty good idea of what’s in the bill.”

The debt ceiling battle was the first main test of how Biden would operate as president in a divided government. It came amid a bumpy transition from Democratic to Republican control — along with the handoff of power from longtime Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Jeffries. Many House Democrats have privately expressed frustration that the White House has not been more communicative about its priorities or taken clearer stances on controversial GOP bills. There is a feeling among House Democrats that the White House pays more attention to the Senate, which remains in Democratic hands and is responsible for approving its nominees.

While the experience over the debt bill mended some of those worries, there is still plenty of frustration.

Horsford went public with his criticism of how the White House handled the bill last week — and reiterated his reproach during a virtual meeting with top White House aides on Sunday.

He said he spoke with administration officials about “ways that we can improve the outreach, the communication and the engagement, particularly on the communities who helped deliver the wins that produced the Biden-Harris administration,” adding that they have been “very receptive.”

The secrecy surrounding the negotiations left a sour taste for some progressives as well, including Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, who bristled at being shut out of discussions around energy permitting.

“The whole presence of the Democratic caucus, that wasn’t there,” Grijalva said, adding that he got the equivalent of a shrug from the White House in response to his concerns.

“This is the situation we find ourselves in,” Grijalva said when asked to characterize the response from Biden aides.

The lingering frustration prompted Jayapal to seek a meeting with the White House following the debt ceiling vote, emphasizing the need to talk through Biden’s communication strategy even as she praised the president for minimizing the concessions in the deal.

Jayapal voted against the bill’s passage. But it was precisely because the measure was able to pass with a mix of Republican and Democratic votes that a large number of progressives felt comfortable opposing it.

“Since we all expect this deal is gonna get done, then I think it’s appropriate for a significant number of progressives to push back” against many of its provisions, said Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas), the Progressive Caucus whip.

The centrist New Democrat Coalition, a group that the White House knew early on would be needed for many of the party’s votes, leveraged that position to advocate for two key policies: permitting reform and funding veterans’ health programs. They said that working with the White House — including giving them their policy positions — paid off, both in keeping lines of communication open and in shaping the legislative product.

“We were able to change the negotiations and get some significant wins for veterans, namely, getting the funding for the toxic exposure fund — the PACT Act — into mandatory funding. That’s huge,” said the Coalition chair, Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.).

The nearly 100-member coalition, in turn, came out early in support of the bill, swiftly boosting the measure’s whip count and lending a degree of legitimacy to the final product in Democratic circles.

In dozens of private briefings with lawmakers and allies over the last three days, senior White House aides offered variations on the same argument: Compare the compromise bill to what Republicans initially demanded back in April, and then decide which side got the better end of the deal.

“I don’t want to overstate it; it’s still going to be painful,” Michael Linden, an OMB aide involved in the negotiations, told outside allies during a private Tuesday call, according to audio obtained by POLITICO. “But it is a much, much, much improved situation from where the Republicans started.”

Biden officials put special effort into selling Democrats on work requirement provisions for government food assistance programs, insisting that they’d lessened the blow by expanding access to those programs for veterans and the homeless. Still, those provisions sparked deep concern among large blocs of progressives and Black lawmakers.

Even Clyburn had reservations, saying in an interview that he sought second opinions from Reps. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) and Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) on whether the White House’s argument held water.

“I was guided by them, because when I go out to sell something, I want to know what it is I’m trying to sell,” he said.

They both concluded that the White House’s calculations were likely correct, a finding later reinforced by the Congressional Budget Office’s projection released Tuesday.

The twist — which effectively turned one of McCarthy’s touted achievements into a lament for some conservatives — proved critical for dozens of Democratic lawmakers in the final hours ahead of the vote.

“I prefer listening to the complaints of the Freedom Caucus than I do in focusing on the process of arriving at the deal,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). “The fact that the ultra-MAGA Republican wing of the MAGA Republican Party is so opposed to this, I think it’s a testament to how successful a negotiation this has been for the Biden administration.”

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