Administration

White House worked behind the scenes to push Senate toward breakthrough win

President Biden is closing in on a legacy-defining win in Congress with the passage of a climate and health care bill in the Senate, a process officials say was not just months, but years in the making. 

While hopes of passing Biden’s agenda appeared dead just a few weeks ago, the president and White House officials quietly worked behind the scenes to help revive talks and ultimately get negotiations in the Senate over the finish line, an administration official said. 

Over the weekend, while the Senate was working through a very long series of votes to approve the package, Biden called roughly a dozen senators and called the cloak room, an administration source told The Hill. The White House legislative team also delivered White House cookies to members on Sunday. 

That followed several months of engagement between senior White House aides and Capitol Hill to get the reconciliation deal passed.  

Senate Democrats on Sunday voted to pass a $740 billion bill that would raise taxes on corporations, tackle climate change, lower prescription drug costs and reduce the federal deficit. Vice President Harris broke the 50-50 tie to send the bill to the House for a vote, where it only needs a simple majority to pass and be sent to Biden’s desk. 

The package includes tax credits for electric vehicles and is expected to reduce climate-warming emissions by 40 percent over the next decade. It gives Medicare broad new power to negotiate lower prescription drug prices. And it includes a three-year extension of Affordable Care Act subsidies at a cost of $64 billion.    

The bill is a smaller version of Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan he proposed in the fall of 2021, lacking funds for child care and elder care programs and certain tax code changes. Talks over that $2 trillion package stalled when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said in December 2021 he would not support it. 

The White House responded at the time with a lengthy statement singling out Manchin for what it called “a breach of his commitments to the President and the Senator’s colleague’s,” frustrating the moderate senator who has been a pivotal vote needed for any major legislation. 

Negotiations came in fits and starts in the months since Manchin’s initial rejection of Biden’s plan, and any hopes for a major climate and health care package appeared dead last month when Manchin said rampant inflation was too big of a concern to move forward. 

But rather than going on offense against Manchin, the White House opted for a quieter approach. Officials did not offer any rebuttal to Manchin appearing to call off negotiations, nor would they confirm any communications between the president and members of the Senate about the status of Biden’s agenda. 

Ultimately, Biden stayed on the sidelines and allowed Manchin and Schumer to hash out the contours of a deal that was announced in late July. As the final deal came together and the Senate prepared to vote, Biden was isolating in the White House with COVID-19. 

An administration official said Biden and his team “were determined to keep working toward a reconciliation deal, and that the best way to do so would be to give Schumer and Manchin space to negotiate” while serving as a resource to help guide the process where needed. 

Biden hailed the passage of the bill on Sunday, thanking Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Democrats for getting it done. 

“It required many compromises. Doing important things almost always does,” the president said in a statement. 

Early this year, the White House deployed counselor Steve Ricchetti to maintain an open channel of communication with Manchin and chief of staff Ron Klain to be in touch with Schumer every day. Office of Legislative Affairs director Louisa Terrell was also in contact with Schumer and Manchin’s office, an administration source said. 

When talks broke down on July 14 between Manchin and Schumer – when Schumer accused Manchin of walking away from a deal after months of negotiations – Ricchetti was in touch with the West Virginia Democrat that day. 

Days later, on July 18, Manchin called Ricchetti and White House Council of Economic Advisers director Brian Deese to tell them he still wanted to reach a deal on reconciliation. That prompted Deese to go to Capitol Hill to meet with Schumer and Manchin staff in Manchin’s hideaway office in the Capitol to talk through a deal, the source said. 

The close contact between White House officials and Manchin and Schumer continued, and on Thursday, Ricchetti, Klain, Terrell, and Deese briefed Biden about the deal in the Senate. Biden called Manchin and Schumer that day, the source said.  

The White House was also careful not to alienate Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the other moderate whose support wasn’t guaranteed until the final days of talks. Officials largely let Schumer work to keep Sinema in the fold, with the White House avoiding comment on any potential areas of disagreement as the package was finalized.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre last week was asked multiple times about Sinema. She declined to disclose when Biden and Sinema last spoke, and when pressed on some of the senator’s concerns, Jean-Pierre said she would not “speak for Senator Sinema.”

The president was in Delaware, having left COVID-19 isolation, when the final Senate vote occurred. 

“We worked for more than a year with lawmakers to get to this moment,” Jean-Pierre said Monday. “[Biden] has traveled the nation to urge action, and he directed the team here at the White House to work closely with senators for months to get over this line while staying in touch with key members himself.” 

Jean-Pierre also pushed back on Monday on Republican criticism of the legislation, saying Republicans are carrying “dishonest water” with “purely false” claims that the stock buyback provision will hurt America’s retirement plans. 

Biden officials argued the president began shaping the terms of the package as early as 2019 in when his campaign platform shifted away from the idea of using cap and trade to support climate policies in favor of incentives for clean energy developments. 

“He knew this was the framework that could unite labor groups, industry, environmentalists, moderate Democrats, and more – and he was right,” the official said. 

Biden in 2019 also made empowering Medicare to negotiate drug prices part of his economic agenda, something that ended up in the final version of the Senate reconciliation bill. 

The president is expected to promote the benefits of the bill, particularly how it will lower prescription drug and energy costs, in the coming months as Democrats seek a boost heading into November’s midterm elections. 

“Do I expect it to help? Yes, I do. It’s going to immediately help,” Biden told reporters Monday before touring flood damage in Kentucky. 

“There’s a whole range of things that are really game-changing for ordinary folks,” Biden added. “Now, some of it is not going to kick in for a little bit, but it’s all good.”

Tags Biden Build Back Better Charles Schumer Charles Schumer Climate change Joe Biden Joe Manchin Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Mitch McConnell Steve Ricchetti
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