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White House zeroes in on Republicans to work with as new reality sets in

By Jeremy Diamond and Phil Mattingly, CNN

Facing a dramatically narrowed path to passing legislation next year, the White House has started to zero in on potential openings that Republicans’ precariously slim, four-seat House majority may create.

Officials acknowledged the sweeping legislative wins of President Joe Biden‘s first two years, several of which were clinched with bipartisan support and significant work with a small number of Senate Republicans, will be near impossible to replicate given the control and ideological makeup of the Republican-led House.

The basic tasks of a functioning government will become high-stakes standoffs. Spending battles will shift from arduous tight-rope walks to outright warfare. And the looming debt ceiling deadline next year and the potential for catastrophic debt default drew enough concern from White House officials that they weighed a push to address it in the current Congress to take it off the table entirely.

Yet at Biden’s direction, White House officials have quietly engaged in early-stage preparations for the new reality on Capitol Hill, homing in on two key groups as they search for issues that can draw bipartisan support: moderate Republicans with a proven track record of working across the aisle and the incoming class of freshmen Republicans who flipped districts Biden won two years earlier.

Those lawmakers will make up the core of any White House effort to secure the bipartisan wins that officials said Biden is keenly interested in pursuing in the two years ahead. They will also be key to any White House hopes of scuttling Republican bills in the House and attempts to squeeze House GOP leadership on key issues.

Clues to that nascent strategy for dealing with a Republican House next year are plastered all over the walls of White House legislative affairs director Louisa Terrell’s office, which are adorned with the names of House Republicans who voted for key pieces of bipartisan legislation in Biden’s first two years in office: the 24 who supported the CHIPS and Science Act, the 13 who voted for the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and the nine who backed reforms to the Electoral Count Act.

In a West Wing where officials say they are clear-eyed about the battles that loom in divided government, it’s easy to see the tallies as a requiem to the past. But the vast majority of the Republicans on those lists were reelected. And they will soon be joined by the new class of Republicans who, in flipping districts Biden won two years earlier, effectively clinched Republicans’ narrow, four-seat majority.

“When you have Republicans representing Biden districts heading into a presidential election cycle, there’s no question it adds a different element in terms of their approach — and ours,” a senior administration official said.

The preparations for the months ahead remain in the early stage, officials said. The central focus remains on closing out the final days of unified power in Washington, DC, by securing the passage of the annual defense policy bill and a sweeping bipartisan spending agreement that includes significant new funding to assist Ukraine’s war effort, as well as a bipartisan measure to close loopholes in the Electoral Count Act that brought the country to the brink on January 6, 2021.

There’s also the issue of the makeup of the new House majority itself, with Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican expected to be the next speaker, firmly in the grips of his own intraparty battle to secure the votes for that ascension. Biden spoke to McCarthy by phone shortly after the election and the California Republican was one of four leaders to meet with Biden at the White House a few weeks later.

Biden said he had hopes that there would be areas of bipartisan agreement in the next Congress “because the American people want us to work together.”

McCarthy, after the meeting, told reporters he “can work with anyone,” but noted the new Republican majority clinched in the midterms signaled “America likes a check and balance.”

But the continued uncertainty across Washington about McCarthy’s pathway to the speakership has tacitly created another reason for what serves as somewhat of a wait-and-see posture in terms of engaging House Republicans.

Still, behind the scenes and driven by Biden’s mantra that all politics is personal, the White House’s legislative affairs team has begun doing deep dives on newly elected Republican lawmakers, compiling comprehensive profiles of their districts and the issues at the heart of their winning campaigns, according to a senior White House official. The White House’s goal: to better understand those lawmakers and what makes them tick as they seek out pressure points and areas of potential compromise.

After two years of seeking out ways to connect Biden, a 36-year Senate veteran with a keen awareness of the importance of even the smallest of priorities back home for elected officials, to rank-and-file members from both parties, the effort will to some degree track and expand on what officials leaned on in their first two years.

But as officials confront a landscape that has closed the door on the Democrat-only legislative pathway that led to two of Biden’s most consequential legislative wins — the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and his cornerstone $700 billion economic and climate law — those efforts take on a new level of salience.

“The option is get absolutely nothing done or find a way to make this work,” a House Democrat told CNN. “Separating the inevitable, and at times likely insane, partisan warfare from the areas we can get stuff done isn’t easy, but I can’t see two years of nothing appealing to someone like (Biden.)”

Outreach from the White House to the newly elected members is sure to follow the preparation currently under way. Each member of the White House’s legislative affairs team is charged with liaising with a list of individual members and at least one committee, a senior White House official said.

While the contours of the White House’s strategy and some of its targets are coming into view, officials are still determining the exact steps they will take to reach their objectives — and they are waiting to see exactly what dynamic they will face in the House next year.

Biden’s top legislative officials have spent the last month primarily focused on wrapping up the major spending negotiations of the current Congress and have held off on significant outreach to Republicans about next year’s Congress. And Republicans are in the midst of their own intraparty war over who will serve as the next speaker of the House, and the new members aren’t even in Washington for another couple of weeks.

“We’re content to let them shoot at one another at the moment,” a senior administration official said. “We have a record and, driven by the president, very clear way in which we approach the importance of these relationships. That will certainly be reflected in the next Congress.”

The next Congress, even with the Republican majority in the House, is set to look different than many White House officials expected in the lead up to Election Day. While they were confident in the popularity of their legislative agenda, the combination of economic headwinds in the form of persistent inflation and historical precedent that showed nearly every president took losses in the first midterm election led to a less than ideal environment.

Instead of the “red wave” predicted by Republicans, however, Biden’s party expanded its Senate majority and stunned House Republicans — and many Democrats — by nearly fighting to a draw in the chamber.

While Republicans flipped the House, they did so with a mere four seat advantage on the backs of candidates who were hardly acolytes of former President Donald Trump. Several represent districts that voted for Biden in 2020.

Democrats are already eyeing those incoming lawmakers — four of whom represent districts in New York — as top targets for Democrats’ efforts to retake the House in 2024 and White House officials expect they will be under more pressure than other Republicans to reach bipartisan deals they can take back to their districts.

A pair of those incoming New York Republicans — Reps.-elect Anthony D’Esposito and Michael Lawler — said they both see an opportunity to work with the White House to pass legislation, though they have yet to hear from the White House.

“We have been, you know, sort of named majority makers here in New York,” D’Esposito told CNN. “And to be honest, if we want to maintain that majority, if we want to keep the seats that we flipped, then we have no choice but then to work in a bipartisan fashion to deliver.”

D’Esposito said House Republican leaders have assured him they understand the need for bipartisanship to hold onto the majority in 2024 and “that there are going to be times where perhaps the members from Long Island have to put their vote in support of things that are going to deliver for Long Island.”

“When you have a small majority, everybody is empowered to a degree,” said Lawler, who defeated House Democrats’ campaign chief in suburban New York. “The objective should be to make sure that we are working as a conference to pass legislation that the conference can get behind and that has the best chance of passing the Senate and being signed by the White House.”

One House Republican told CNN that freshmen Republican lawmakers like Lawler and D’Esposito will have “real leverage.”

“I get the Trump focus and I get the Freedom Caucus focus,” one House Republican told CNN of the former president and the hard right group of House Republicans who hold significant sway inside the conference. “But we go nowhere without our freshmen — and while I’m not sure they’ll use it, that creates very real leverage.”

For Biden and his team, who capitalized in their first two years in office on a number of moderate or bipartisan-minded Senate Republicans willing to work across the aisle on shared priorities, there are now opportunities among House Republicans that in large part have all but promised to declare outright legislative war on the White House.

Biden was often a key interlocutor with Republican lawmakers during his time as vice president under President Barack Obama and was elected in part on promises of finding common ground with Republicans.

While Biden delivered in part on that promise with several bipartisan deals in the Senate, a Republican House brings a new degree of difficulty that officials acknowledged will force them to implement some new approaches if they hope to get substantive legislation passed next year.

Even if the White House can convince enough Republicans to buck their party on key bills, the speaker of the House controls what legislation comes up for a vote in the chamber. Recent House GOP leaders have attempted to stick close to an unofficial idea that nothing should move forward without a “majority of the majority” in support of the measure, though the approach was often scrapped in times of crisis or must-pass legislative moments.

Discharge petitions, which can be used by a majority of members to bring a bill up for a vote, are rarely — if ever — successful.

The stark reality for White House officials is despite a fractured incoming majority, which to this point still doesn’t include a member with enough support to lock up the speakership, there are major limitations on legislative efforts ahead in the House.

A senior White House official declined to say whether the White House would focus on trying to strike bipartisan agreements with Republican leadership or try and peel off moderate Republicans through the use of discharge petitions, calling those decisions premature.

The official also declined to say whether Biden will engage more directly with Republican lawmakers, but noted that Biden has a track record of engaging with Republicans during his time in office, even if many of those conversations are private and undisclosed.

“As I have throughout my career, I’m going to continue to work across the aisle to deliver for the American people. And it’s not always easy, but we did it the first term,” Biden said in his post-midterm election news conference last month. “I’m prepared to work with my Republican colleagues. The American people have made clear, I think, that they expect Republicans to be prepared to work with me as well.

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