After the deal was announced on Saturday night, his team went into overdrive to make sure the frustration they’d unleashed within their group didn’t escalate into a full-blown riot. Administration officials made over 100 one-on-one calls with House Democrats. They held shaky virtual meetings on the details of the negotiation and asked pointed questions about the policy they had agreed to.
The strategy of the ice and then the court worked. On Wednesday evening, 165 House Democrats voted in favor of 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 a terrible piece of legislation and ultimately supported it.
It was a major victory for Biden, not only preventing an economic calamity that could have resulted from a breach of the debt ceiling, but proving — five months after a divided government — that the White House and House Democrats have persevered in what seemed sometimes like a rocky relationship.
« It’s the most amazing thing, » Rep. Jim Clyburn (DS.C.) said of the president, a close ally Biden has explicitly asked to help sell the bill in one of their regular filings throughout the process. “I don’t know if he’s that lucky or that skilled. Whatever it is, it damn sure works.
Not all Democrats left the process happy. Progressives, in particular, were appalled that the president backed down on his promise not to negotiate around the debt ceiling at all. But when it became clear that Republicans wouldn’t support a « clean » increase in the debt ceiling, Democrats said they felt a collective feeling that they were in the trenches.
This gave Biden some room to engage in negotiations. Helping matters was that the final deal beat the expectations House Republicans had set for themselves after they successfully passed their much more conservative version of a debt ceiling hike in late April.
“We were working with kidnappers trying not to take prisoners. And I think Joe Biden, if I may say so, has done a miraculous and important job of keeping the tsunami at bay, » said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), which supported the bill. “We were in a bloody war. We were prone to being mutilated. We didn’t. We went out, we are standing.
Hill’s White House involvement began shortly after the McCarthy deal was announced on Saturday night. Several White House officials — including Chief of Staff Jeff Zients, Top Advisor Steve Ricchetti, Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young, and Legislative Affairs Director Louisa Terrell, among others — spent most part of 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 of senior officials, according to White House officials who declined anonymity to describe the behind-the-scenes blitz.
Once-skeptical Democrats took particular comfort in the inclusion of Young, a former House staffer beloved throughout the caucus, in the negotiating room. Not part of the inner circle of longtime Biden advisers, she was seen as both a credible messenger and a trusted negotiator. Jeffries told reporters she received a standing ovation at Wednesday’s caucus meeting even before she began speaking.
But it wasn’t just the quality of the messenger that mattered to House Democrats. It was the breadth of the briefings.
« The White House did something very clever: They spent two days with members, virtually, three hours a day for two days explaining, answering questions, answering questions, » Clyburn said, adding he didn’t see 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 Hill, and White House officials say they remained in contact with leadership throughout the process. Full involvement was needed after House Democrats showed initial displeasure at not being told about the deal soon after it was announced on 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 could not risk further riots.
« I went through about seven hours of briefings, » said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the education and workforce committee. « We’ve got a good idea of what’s in the bill. »
The debt ceiling battle was the first major test of how Biden would operate as president in a divided government. It came amid a bumpy transition from Democratic to Republican control, coupled with the transfer of power from the longtime president Nancy Pelosi at Jeffries. Many House Democrats have privately expressed frustration that the White House hasn’t been more communicative about its priorities or taken clearer positions on controversial GOP bills. There is a sense among House Democrats that the White House pays more attention to the Senate, which remains in Democrat hands and is responsible for approving its candidates.
While the debt bill experience has resolved some of these concerns, there is still a lot of frustration.
Horsford went public with his criticisms of how the White House handled the bill last week and reiterated his rebuke during a virtual meeting with top White House aides Sunday.
He said he spoke with administration officials about « ways we can improve awareness, communication and engagement, especially about the communities that helped win the victories that produced the Biden-Harris administration. » adding that they have been “very receptive.”
The secrecy surrounding the negotiations has also left a bad taste for some progressives, including Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, who chafed at being left out of energy permit discussions.
“The whole Democratic caucus presence, which wasn’t there,” Grijalva said, adding that he got the equivalent of a White House shrug in response to his concerns.
“This is where we are,” Grijalva said when asked to characterize the response from Biden’s aides.
The lingering frustration prompted Jayapal to seek a meeting with the White House after the debt ceiling vote, stressing the need to talk about Biden’s communications strategy even as he praised the president for minimizing concessions in the deal.
Jayapal voted against passing the bill. But it was precisely because the measure passed with a mix of Republican and Democratic votes that a large number of progressives felt comfortable opposing it.
« Since we all expect this deal to go through, I think it’s appropriate that a significant number of progressives push back » against many of its provisions, said Rep. Greg Casar
(D-Texas), the Progressive Caucus whip.
The centrist New Democrat Coalition, a group the White House knew early on would be needed for many of the party’s votes, has used that position to advocate for two key policies: enabling reform and funding veterans’ health programs. They said working with the White House, including giving them their policy positions, has paid off, both in keeping the lines of communication open and in shaping the legislative product.
“We were able to turn the negotiations around and win some significant victories for veterans, namely getting funding for the Toxic Exposure Fund – the PACT Act – into mandatory funding. It’s huge, » said Coalition chair Rep. Annie Kuster (DNH.).
The nearly 100-member coalition, in turn, soon came out in support of the bill, quickly increasing the measure’s lashes and lending a degree of legitimacy to the final product in Democratic circles.
In dozens of private briefings with lawmakers and allies over the past three days, senior White House aides have offered variations on the same argument: Compare the compromise bill to the one Republicans initially called for in April, and then decide. which side won. Deal.
“I don’t want to exaggerate; it will still be painful,” Michael Linden, an OMB aide involved in the negotiations, told external allies in a private phone call Tuesday, according to audio obtained by POLITICO. « But it’s a much, much, much better situation than where the Republicans started. »
Biden officials made a special effort to sell Democrats provisions on job requirements for government food assistance programs, insisting they had softened the blow by expanding access to those programs for veterans and the homeless. However, those provisions have raised deep concern among large blocs of black progressives and lawmakers.
Clyburn also had reservations, saying in an interview that he sought a second opinion from Reps. Lauren Underwood (Tell her Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) on whether the White House argument held.
« I was guided by them, because when I go out to sell something, I want to know what I’m trying to sell, » he said.
Both concluded that the White House’s calculations were likely correct, a finding later bolstered by the Congressional Budget Office’s projection released Tuesday.
The twist — which effectively turned one of McCarthy’s publicized successes into a wail for some conservatives — proved pivotal for dozens of Democratic lawmakers in the final hours before the vote.
« I’d rather hear the Freedom Caucus grievances than focus on the process of getting to the deal, » said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). “The fact that the ultra-MAGA Republican wing of the MAGA Republican Party is so against this, I think is a testament to how successful this negotiation has been for the Biden administration.”