With a 50-50 Senate and a paper-thin Democratic majority in the House, Louisa Terrell would have a tough job no matter what.
But the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has created a lot of unique challenges for the director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs.
"You're not able to do the pull-asides you can do in an Easter egg roll [event], when people are there with their families — a great way to connect," Terrell told NPR. "Members are not roaming the halls all the time."
So Terrell has appreciated President Joe Biden's occasional meetings in the Oval Office with groups of lawmakers, even if they mean a lot of preparation for her team.
"It gives me small little flashbacks to planning my wedding," Terrell admitted.
The Biden White House has prioritized COVID-19 safety, even with most members of Congress and White House officials fully vaccinated, so the president's Oval Office meetings with lawmakers are carefully choreographed. Two lawmakers sit on each couch; the rest are placed on chairs around the room. Many times, every lawmaker is wearing an N95 mask.
Social distancing is most important, but Terrell says political and personal factors go into the seating chart, too: seniority, interpersonal relationships and other dynamics, like how many of the lawmakers are visiting the Oval Office for the first time.
She also works to space the seating so that the social distancing doesn't leave any members of Congress feeling left out of the discussion. Sightlines are analyzed.
"No one's blocked out," she said. "You're trying to make it feel like you're sort of around the table together."
Key congressional meetings in the Oval Office
The Office of Legislative Affairs is doing a lot of high-stakes seat-charting this week. Aiming for a legislative breakthrough on his multitrillion-dollar infrastructure and jobs proposals before the end of the month, Biden is hosting key lawmaker after key lawmaker in the Oval Office, hoping to win support for the wide-reaching plans from moderate Democrats and Senate Republicans.
Biden held meetings earlier this week with two Democrats who have made it clear they'll flex their power in an evenly split Senate: West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema. On Thursday, Biden will meet with half a dozen Senate Republicans, including West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito, who's leading GOP negotiating efforts on infrastructure.
And Wednesday, Biden sits down for the first time as president with all four legislative leaders: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Though Biden's first big legislative priority, the COVID relief bill, passed entirely along party lines, the longtime former senator has repeatedly expressed optimism he'll be able to reach bipartisan deals on infrastructure and other major efforts.
That's despite the fact McConnell recently proclaimed that "100% of my focus is on stopping this new administration," and House Republicans are in the midst of ousting Rep. Liz Cheney from leadership for insisting correctly that Biden was legitimately elected president in a free and fair election.
Much of the White House's Republican outreach has been directed at individual lawmakers, rather than party leadership.
"None of this is done with any kind of putting our head in the sand or naivete," Terrell said. "It's really just the one-on-one [conversations]."
The White House's Office of Legislative Affairs has conducted nearly 500 phone calls with lawmakers and their staffs about the American Jobs Plan, according to a White House official. And Cabinet members have placed more than 150 calls — not to mention Biden's regular phone calls with legislators.
Terrell said she urges lawmakers to get in touch with the White House by saying, "You have the bat phone, and please use it."
Will the outreach pay off?
Congress is noticing the attention. Congressional staffers tell NPR they appreciate the open communication lines, as well as symbolic gestures like Biden inviting Republican senators to greet Air Force One on the tarmac when he visits their states.
But the approach didn't win Biden any votes for his nearly $2 trillion rescue plan, and so far, he and Republicans appear to be far apart on infrastructure.
Biden wants to spend up to $4 trillion on his two plans. Capito's counter-offer is much more narrowly tailored toward physical infrastructure like roads and bridges, and would cost less than $600 billion.
Capito recently told CNN she thinks there's a middle ground. "I don't know where that is right now. But at least we're talking, we're starting to talk, and we've gotten some good signals back that this is the direction the White House and others want to go."
McConnell's "100% focused" comment, made to reporters in Kentucky last week, seemed to indicate he's not for a deal, though the minority leader later tried to walk the statement back, and has said Republicans would be open to a smaller measure.
For many Democrats, the statement was a sharp reminder of the way McConnell blocked so much — even a Supreme Court seat — during the Obama administration. "He said that the last administration," Biden responded to the concern. "That he was going to stop everything. And I was able to get a lot done with him."
In addition to the size and scope of a package, Biden and Republicans are far apart on how to fund new projects. McConnell and other Republicans say Biden's proposal to roll back some of the Trump tax cuts is a nonstarter.
Biden has said the 2017 tax cuts, funneled primarily to corporations and the wealthy, and funded by deficit spending, can and should be trimmed. "I'm willing to compromise. But I'm not willing to not pay for what we're talking about," Biden said last week.
Winning Republican support isn't just symbolic. Democrats could pass an infrastructure bill along party lines using Senate reconciliation rules, but that would require unanimous support from all 50 Democrats.
Several more moderate Democrats have made it clear they'd prefer a bipartisan bill, even if it's scaled-down.
Underscoring how important it is to keep those moderate Democrats on board: Biden's talks with Manchin and Sinema this week came before the meeting with congressional leaders.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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