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Nation & World

Biden To Sit Down With The 'Big Four' Leaders From Congress

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tomorrow, for the first time, President Biden sits down with the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate. They have big differences over his multitrillion-dollar infrastructure plan. Biden is also inviting rank-and-file members of both parties to join him in the Oval Office as he tries to sell his agenda one-on-one. NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow reports.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: With a 50-50 Senate and paper-thin Democratic majority in the House, Louisa Terrell would have a tough job no matter what. But the ongoing pandemic has created a lot of unique challenges for the head of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs.

LOUISA TERRELL: You're not able to do the pull-asides you can do in an Easter egg roll, when people are there with their families and just in a great way to connect. Members are not roaming the halls all the time.

DETROW: So Terrell has appreciated Biden's occasional meetings in the Oval Office with groups of lawmakers, even if they mean a lot of preparation for her team.

TERRELL: So it gives me, like, small little flashbacks to, like, planning my wedding, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Welcome all home. This is their new home.

DETROW: The meetings are carefully choreographed - two lawmakers on each couch, the rest placed on chairs in and around the Resolute Desk and elsewhere. Social distancing is most important, but Terrell says a lot of political and personal factors go into the seating chart, too. She doesn't want any lawmakers to feel left out.

TERRELL: No one's blocked out. Like, you're really trying to make it feel like you're sort of around a table together.

DETROW: Personal connections have always been important for Biden, especially when it comes to Congress. He's constantly referencing his decades in the Senate, including at the very top of his recent address from the House chamber.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Mitch and Chuck will understand it's good to be almost home, down the hall.

DETROW: In addition to the careful meetings, the White House says its legislative affairs office has already logged nearly 500 phone calls or meetings with lawmakers or Hill staff to talk about the American Jobs Plan. Terrell says a good chunk of them have been with Republicans despite GOP lawmakers' lockstep rejection of Biden's recovery plan.

TERRELL: None of this is done with any kind of putting our head in the sand or naivete, but it's really just the one-on-ones and really looking at those numbers and being very specific and understanding where they're coming from and seeing where we can get.

DETROW: West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito has been leading Republican efforts to counter Biden's infrastructure plan. She introduced a nearly $600 million proposal. Capito recently told CNN she thinks there's a middle ground between that and Biden's broader plans, which could cost up to $4 trillion.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: 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 this is the direction the White House and others want to go.

DETROW: Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed to indicate he's not looking for a deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: One hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration.

DETROW: McConnell later tried to walk the statement back, but for many Democrats, it was a sharp reminder of the way he blocked so much, even a Supreme Court seat during the Obama administration. Biden told reporters he still holds out some hope. Still, heading into tomorrow's meeting, Biden and Republicans are very far apart on two key areas - the overall size and scope and also Biden's proposal to pay for part of it by scaling back some of the Trump-era corporate tax cuts. McConnell and other Republicans say it's a nonstarter. Biden says they're wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I'm willing to compromise, but I'm not willing to not pay for what we're talking about. I'm not willing to deficit spend.

DETROW: Finding common ground will be key to getting the bill passed. Biden has spent the early part of the week meeting with moderate Senate Democrats, people like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, two Democrats who have hinted their support may also hinge on the ability for Biden to cut a bipartisan deal.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.