Over 12 hours last Friday, the White House’s top legislative priority—a gargantuan $1.9 trillion relief bill making its way through the U.S. Senate—teetered on the brink of derailment.
That morning, President Joe Biden and Senate Democrats had agreed on a compromise for structuring unemployment benefits in the coming months, a major victory with the deadline for those payments less than two weeks away. But when it came to a vote, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), caught off guard by the new language, balked. The chamber was frozen for the rest of the day, and night, as both members in both parties worked over the Senate’s swing vote.
Fortunately for them, Reema Dodin was on hand. A 15-year veteran of Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) office, the 39-year old aide had served for a decade as the second-ranking Democrat’s floor director—the person tasked with keeping the Senate’s trains running on time and translating that schedule for everyone else.
Through that work, Dodin intimately understood not only procedure and the policy at hand, but the personalities, priorities, and idiosyncrasies of all 100 senators and their staffs. To them, she is a quasi-mythical figure, described in terms that are so gratuitously effusive one might think she was the majority leader. One Democratic aide compared her facility on the Senate floor to Michael Jordan’s on the basketball court.
“She is legendary in the Senate as a wise person,” Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) said of Dodin. “She knows the rules of the Senate, she knows the institutional fundamentals of how the Senate works, but then she knows the people too. You can know all the rules in the world, but if you don’t understand how people will interact, then you don't really get the Senate—that’s what makes Reema so indispensable.”
Over the years, Dodin had navigated her fair share of blow-ups like the one that unfolded last week. And through the wee hours of Saturday, she was present on conference calls and in the halls as a marathon all-night vote moved forward. But this time, Dodin was on Capitol Hill in a new capacity: as a top official in the White House’s legislative affairs team, helping Biden push his top legislative priority and keep perhaps his most pressing campaign promise.
Dodin is the shop’s Senate whisperer; Shuwanza Goff, the longtime floor general for Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), is the House specialist. The team is headed up by Louisa Terrell, a former top aide to Biden during his Senate days, a chief of staff to Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and an alumna of President Barack Obama’s legislative affairs operation.
Senate staffers saw the handiwork of Biden’s legislative team—helmed by insiders’ insiders—throughout the process. Instead of trying to steamroll Manchin into submission, the White House hung back. They let his allies do the talking first, and gave space to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to work, before putting Manchin on the phone with Biden personally later that night. The West Virginia centrist ultimately got on board, having secured concessions, and the $1.9 trillion bill passed later that day. Dodin and Terrell were among the last to be seen leaving the Senate after a 24-hour-plus session.
Biden will sign the bill into law on Friday after the House passed the final version on Wednesday. Democrats have already been quick to assign credit for the first major achievement of his presidency, praising Biden’s focus, and the perseverance of Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). But many say it’s impossible to discount the impact of his legislative affairs shop.
“Their knowledge of how the Senate works shines through in that,” said a senior Democratic aide. “Saying, we gotta get this done, but giving [Manchin] space, it’s just tactical genius… I think a White House operation that was not as steeped in how the Senate works might well have screwed that up.”
“Reema was hired for a specific reason,” added another Democratic aide. “She got this bill done. She worked the members. She was up there Friday and Saturday. She was still the whip, and she was Biden’s person, simultaneously.”
Effectively, the three women are Biden’s designated top lobbyists on the Hill, working their considerable rolodexes to manage relationships and establish a mutually valuable two-way flow of information. All three are considered by Democrats, and many Republicans, to be the most capable people their party has to offer for those jobs.
To Biden’s allies, that is an immense relief at a moment when the razor-thin Senate majority and a thinner-than-expected margin in the House of Representatives has raised the stakes of every legislative priority. And among those lawmakers most pivotal to the passage of Biden’s agenda, his legislative team is held in high esteem—including Manchin, whose considerable influence is already crystal clear.
“Reema is a straight shooter with impeccable character,” Manchin said in a statement to The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “She was a tremendous asset during her time in the Senate, not only to Senator Durbin but to the entire caucus. It’s impossible to overstate what a value she is to President Biden.”
The Biden legislative team is “staffed with individuals who have both substantive experience in variety of policy areas as well as enormous practical experience in terms of dealing with House and Senate procedure, members and their staff, and understanding the difficulties of shepherding larger and smaller scale legislation through the Congress and ultimately to the president’s desk,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institute. “We often think of powerful senators and House members as key players in Congress, but what most people forget is behind those powerful members are in some cases nearly equally powerful staffers.”
The White House’s hands-on approach to legislative affairs is in many ways an outgrowth of Biden’s reputation, built over decades of work in the Senate, as a consensus-builder with an enthusiasm for compromise—and his campaign promise of being a “unity” president. Biden enters office with an uncommon amount of congressional experience; only President Lyndon Johnson, a one-time majority leader, had as extensive a legislative pedigree.
To many in the Capitol, the Legislative Affairs hires were pitch-perfect for a president well-known for his affinity for this branch of government, an instant sign of how seriously the new administration planned to take them.
“President Biden knows the Senate well,” said Smith. “He also hasn't served in this Senate, so I think it’s a sign of how much he respects the Senate, how much he respects the need to work closely with the Senate, that he brings someone like Reema in who knows this Senate as well as anybody does.”
But it’s also a recognition of the Obama administration’s missteps in assuming that the public popularity of legislation was a predictor of its success in Congress—and a crystallization of the Senate’s growing partisan bifurcation that makes even the most publicly popular legislation a knock-down drag-out.
“Biden’s learning from the Obama bros’ mistakes,” one former Senate aide who has since joined the administration said, adding that the president is “clearly not getting bogged down by lofty ideals on the other side.”
But Biden, though he was tasked with shepherding key Obama-era priorities through Congress, hasn’t served in the Senate in more than a decade, and the majority of his senior staff are working at a similar remove.
“The vast majority, including the president himself—who are viewed as creatures of the Senate—have not dealt with this Senate, or any Senate since 2015-16. Even since then, things have radically changed,” said Mike Spahn, a former chief of staff to Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and a longtime Dodin colleague. “That brings you back to Reema. She’s the secret weapon they have to connect to today’s senators.”
The White House’s legislative affairs office is clearly structured to bridge that experience gap. In addition to Dodin, the office has also brought in several direct hires from congressional offices with hands-on experience navigating a House and Senate increasingly divided along partisan lines, including Zephranie Buetow, who served as Sen. Gary Peters’ (D-MI) legislative director and was well liked by fellow legislative aides, and Angela Ramirez, who spent 12 years on the staff of Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), the House’s No. 4 Democrat until his election to the Senate in 2020, eventually rising to chief of staff. On Tuesday, with the relief bill close to a fait accompli, the White House announced four more hires for the office—plucked from the offices of major committee chairs and Schumer himself—with a combined 63 years of Hill experience.
Goff is in charge of handling the fractious but less fragile House, with its narrow Democratic majority, for Biden. She is well-liked but was known for her relentless efficiency while doing the House version of Dodin’s job. “She’s always in a, ‘let’s make a deal’ mode,” said a chief of staff to a Democratic lawmaker. “She is not one to dilly dally around just to hang out. She’s like, we’re doing this, what do we need to get to yes.”
That hands-on experience has brought with it a hands-on approach to coalition-building, according to longtime Hill staffers, with outreach to various factions, from Blue Dogs to House progressives, having earned the legislative affairs team “a lot of goodwill among members,” according to the Democratic chief of staff.
“We get a check-in once a week from the White House. Which is pretty insane,” the chief of staff said, adding that their first meeting with Biden’s legislative officials—who wanted to talk through their immigration plan—came in December. “[Members] are not always gonna agree with the administration, but that honest, proactive check-in is going to be huge in the long-term success of the administration.”
Democrats don’t seem to know what to do with all the attention, given their experience in recent years. They had cordial, but frequently unproductive, relationships with Trump’s liaisons, and their ties with the Obama team were famously strained. He had been in the Senate just two years before taking office, and it quickly became clear how little patience he had for the personalities and politicking of the legislative branch. Aides and lawmakers still remember awkward meetings with Obama’s liaisons, the times when the president would travel to a member’s state or district without more than a day’s warning, much less an offer to fly on Air Force One.
Some Democrats stress that Biden’s different approach to Capitol Hill is not only a function of his team’s desire to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor; he simply relishes the back-and-forth with Congress that Obama recoiled from. Much of the Senate Democratic caucus has already visited the White House; in a moment that resonated for many, during a meeting with Biden and colleagues in the Oval Office last month, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) mused that he’d never been in the room before. He has served in the Senate since 2007.
“There’s currency in every White House,” another senior Democratic aide said. “The currency in Biden’s White House is information about legislators. I don’t know if that was as important to Obama.”
The relationship has not been without its missteps, however. When Vice President Kamala Harris called in to WSAZ, an NBC affiliate in Huntington, West Virginia, last month to apply some home-turf pressure to Manchin on the relief package, the move was seen as an attempt to undercut a Democratic senator in his own state—and Manchin was deeply irritated.
“I saw it. I couldn’t believe it. No one called me,” Manchin later told the same station when asked about Harris’ appearance. “We’re going to try to find a bipartisan pathway forward, but we need to work together. That’s not a way of working together.”
Although the White House has refused to discuss the strategy behind Harris’ maladroit attempts to box Manchin in on the American Rescue Plan—at the time, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the administration’s focus was on “communicating with the American people about how the American Rescue Plan can help put food on the table”—it seems unlikely that the approach came from the legislative team.
Progressives, however, aren’t feeling quite so massaged as the archetypal Blue Dog, despite efforts to build a left-wing brain trust in the West Wing, including frequent calls with White House chief of staff Ron Klain.
“There’s been a lot of outreach, we’ll be in touch, forced exclamation points,” said one aide to a progressive House member, who noted their boss has yet to get a meeting with anyone at the Legislative Affairs shop. Though the aide noted their emails get polite acknowledgements within 20 minutes of being sent, meaningful responses to their concerns on key issues have been scant. “They’re checking all the boxes on paper, but there’s no interest in working as partners,” they said.
Republicans might say the same thing, even though they have been on the receiving end of a conspicuous charm offensive from Biden since he won the election. According to a source familiar with the transition, Biden aides were reaching out daily to GOP Senate offices on behalf of the legislative affairs shop between November and inauguration day to make introductions and hear out their concerns. It was not lost on many insiders—especially Democrats—that the president’s first Oval Office meeting with lawmakers was a January confab with 10 moderate Senate Republicans.
But the fruit of those efforts seems a long way off after the COVID bill process revealed clear fault lines. None of the 10 Republicans who met with Biden ended up supporting the American Rescue Plan after Democrats—determined to get the bill they wanted quickly rather than something more modest later—rejected their proposals for a bill a third the size of what was ultimately passed.
Biden, who came up in a Senate far different from today’s, is sometimes thought of by Democrats to be clinging to a notion of bipartisanship that no longer exists. Many Republicans do not doubt Biden’s feeling of bonhomie, but they also believe he is too constrained by his leadership team and the Democratic base to meaningfully engage with the GOP.
The legislative affairs shop finds themselves in the middle of that fraught dynamic. Republicans say the team is well positioned to navigate it—within reason, of course. Kyle Nevins, a former floor director to former GOP Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), co-wrote a book on congressional procedure with Dodin in 2017, and they remain friends.
“I have no doubt she’ll be able to work well with those centrist-minded Republican senators,” said Nevins. “But whether you can go outside of that group, I don’t know, and that’s not specific to Reema... The good news is, any Republican is gonna be happy to hear her out, happy to meet with her.”
A Democratic aide put it another way: “I don’t know if she will get Republican votes, but it won’t happen without her.”
The COVID relief bill may be in Biden’s rearview as of Wednesday, but the White House is already moving on other planks of its agenda. It’s widely believed that a big-ticket infrastructure package is their next order of business—something that could theoretically be a bipartisan unifier but could also quickly become a bitter, combative exercise, as the American Rescue Plan did.
Capitol Hill will continue to be the arena for the biggest fights of the Biden era, and the first one proved to Democrats that he has the best team around him as they head into increasingly difficult terrain.
“This legislative affairs team absolutely mirrors the president,” said another senior Democratic aide. “It’s a credit to President Biden. He has respect for the institution and doesn’t think it’s his job to roll us. He really enjoys the legislative process… It’s no surprise he was successful in his first big push.”