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Timing Is Everything, Biden Says, and ‘Politics Is the Art of the Possible’

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WASHINGTON — He reflected on his reputation as a “nice guy” and a “decent man.” He talked about how his great-grandfather set sail on the Irish Sea to make the difficult journey to America. He observed that “politics is the art of the possible.”

In his first formal news conference since taking office, President Biden offered an early glimpse of the man who inhabits the Oval Office and how he is approaching the presidency so far. Unlike President Donald J. Trump’s hot-tempered blowups or President Barack Obama’s extended answers of professorial cool, Mr. Biden was the sober political veteran comfortable with thinking out loud, talking personally and conversationally, and showing occasional impatience before a roomful of reporters.

When he received a question he did not like, such as whether he expected to run in 2024 against Mr. Trump, he shrugged it off with, “I don’t know where you guys come from, man.” But Mr. Biden did say he expected to run again, with Vice President Kamala Harris at his side.

After nearly four decades in politics, including eight years as vice president, he showed himself as a student of the office. “It’s a matter of timing,” he said when asked about his legislative priorities. “As you’ve all observed, the successful presidents better than me have been successful in large part because they know how to time what they’re doing. Order it. Decide priorities. What needs to be done.” To that end, he cited his $3 trillion infrastructure bill as “the next major initiative.”

And when asked why he did not push to abolish the Senate filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass most legislation and which Mr. Biden called a relic of the Jim Crow era, he said simply that “successful electoral politics is the art of the possible” — and that he wanted to see whether he could change the filibuster first.

Mr. Biden also recalled the Senate of yore, as he has done multiple times as president: “It used to be you had to stand there and talk and talk and talk and talk until you collapsed. And guess what, people got tired of talking.”

But he joked about how outdated his own views could sometimes sound. “I believe we should go back to a position in the filibuster that existed just when I came to the United States Senate 120 years ago,” he said.

The president engaged on questions about his administration’s attempt to ramp up capacity to temporarily care for the thousands of migrant children who are arriving at the southwestern border without legal guardians. He also took aim at the zero-tolerance policies enacted by Mr. Trump, saying his administration is trying “to put in place what was dismantled.”

“I like to think it’s because I’m a nice guy,” Mr. Biden said. “But it’s not. It’s because of what’s happened.”

At times, he was equal parts off the cuff — “I guess I should be flattered,” he responded when pressed on his “moral” approach to detaining families at the border — and exasperated.

“That’s a serious question, right? Is it acceptable to me? Come on,” Mr. Biden said when asked if the state of Customs and Border Protection facilities in Texas, where children are being temporarily housed, was acceptable to him.

Other times he was solicitous of reporters. “Am I giving you too long an answer?” he asked Yamiche Alcindor of PBS NewsHour. “If you don’t want the details — I don’t know how much detail you want about immigration. Maybe I’ll stop there.”

He spoke of immigration in personal terms, as the last resort of desperate people seeking a new life in the United States. When families decide to leave Mexico or Guatemala, the president said, they do not say, “I got a great idea: let’s sell everything we have, give it to a coyote, have him take our kids across the border into a desert where they don’t speak the language, won’t that be fun?”

Mr. Biden added: “That’s not how it happens. People don’t want to leave. When my great-grandfather got in a coffin ship in the Irish Sea, expectation was he going to live long enough on that ship to get to the United States of America? They left because of what the Brits had been doing. They were in real, real trouble. They didn’t want to leave. But they had no choice. So, you’ve got — we can’t — I can’t guarantee we’re going to solve everything. But I can guarantee we can make everything better. We can make it better.”

The president’s appearance came after weeks of requests from reporters and speculation about why the White House was delaying the decision to have him hold a news conference. Mr. Biden’s advisers had said that the plan had been to pass the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package into law before holding one.

As he took questions for over an hour, the president also did little to fuel the narrative being crafted by conservative news media that he is lacking in his mental facilities. He appeared well prepared and sure of his facts, although he did refer to the “North China Sea,” which does not exist.

During the news conference, a limited number of journalists were allowed in the room. Those who attended wore masks and sat six feet apart to comply with social-distancing rules. Mr. Biden called on reporters by their first names, from a list drawn up beforehand by his staff.

In that sense, it was another return to normalcy, after four years of Mr. Trump’s free-for-all, fact-challenged news conferences. At one, Mr. Trump mocked a reporter for wearing what he called “the largest mask I think I’ve ever seen” and at another claimed that injecting disinfectants into the human body could help combat the coronavirus. Reporters shouted to be heard, and Mr. Trump appeared to relish the chaos.

Mr. Biden’s performance, in contrast, was relatively sedate.

“It’s a really big relief after four years, when every presidential news conference was a cataclysmic event,” said Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist. She said Mr. Biden had stayed on message and “has woven in empathy into everything he does.”

“Biden did what he needed to do,” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to Mr. Obama. “He drove the progress on the virus at the top, parried difficult questions on the border and filibuster, and generally refrained from making unwelcome news.”

It is unclear where Mr. Biden will fall in terms of regularly addressing the news media in a formal setting. Mr. Trump gave 44 formal news conferences during his presidency, though he regularly had lengthy question-and-answer sessions with reporters during Oval Office events or before crossing the White House lawn to board Marine One. Mr. Obama held 65 news conferences, according to data compiled by The American Presidency Project, which tracks such solo appearances.

Mr. Biden also left a series of open questions about some of the most politically contentious problems facing his administration. He would not say how soon he planned to allow reporters to see the conditions at migrant detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border. He did not commit to a timeline for pulling American troops out of Afghanistan. And he declined multiple times to say whether he would try to change how the Senate functions.

In those moments, Mr. Biden, a politician who has only recently embraced the art of restraint, seemed aware of the perils of making promises to a room full of reporters.

“I’m not going to lay out a strategy in front of the whole world,” he said, “and you, now.”



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In Washington, Policy Revolves Around Joe Manchin. He Likes It That Way.

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WASHINGTON — If Democrats eliminate the filibuster, there is one senator who would have an outsized impact in the 50-50 chamber on issues that could reshape the nation’s future: infrastructure, immigration, gun laws and voting rights. That senator is Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.

There is also a senator whose opposition to eliminating the filibuster is a significant reason it may never happen. That senator, too, is Mr. Manchin.

“He should want to get rid of the filibuster because he suddenly becomes the most powerful person in this place — he’s the 50th vote on everything,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, sketching out the argument.

Mr. Manchin, however, does not see it that way. To the exasperation of Democrats, delight of Republicans and bewilderment of politicians who can’t understand why he wouldn’t want to wield more power, Mr. Manchin, a former governor of the state, isn’t budging.

“Sixty votes,” he said in an interview last week in his office, referring to the threshold required to advance most legislation, adding that he would not consider suspending the filibuster for certain bills, as some of his colleagues have floated: “You’re either committed or not.”

But with 18 people dead after two mass shootings within a week, a worsening migrant challenge on the border and Republicans trying to restrict voting in almost every state where they hold power, liberals believe this moment cries out for a different sort of commitment. At a time when they have full control of Congress and are confronting overlapping crises, many Democrats feel a moral and political imperative to act, process be damned.

That puts Mr. Manchin, 73, at the center of the most important policy debates in Washington — and has set the stage for a collision between a party eager to use its majorities to pass sweeping legislation and a political throwback determined to restore bipartisanship to a chamber that’s as polarized as the country.

Mr. Manchin believes that ending the legislative filibuster would effectively destroy the Senate. He recalled his predecessor, Robert C. Byrd, telling him that the chamber had been designed to force consensus.

Mr. Manchin has expressed willingness to support a “talking filibuster,” in which lawmakers have to actually hold the floor, perhaps for many hours, to block a vote. But he has not yielded on getting rid of it altogether and on an array of issues, including voting rights and gun control, his admonition is less about any particular policy end and more about making sure the legislation has support from both parties.

More broadly, Mr. Manchin’s resistance to ending the filibuster has ripened fundamental questions about which version of Congress would be more dysfunctional: a body stymied by gridlock or one that can pass legislation only by scrapping longstanding guidelines so it can push through party-line votes?

“You can’t make the place work if nothing significant is getting passed,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a leading progressive from California.

Mr. Manchin worries that the short-term benefit of ditching the filibuster would backfire for Democrats over the long term.

“I’m concerned about the House pushing an agenda that would be hard for us to maintain the majority,” Mr. Manchin said about the progressive legislation that House Democrats are stacking up at the Senate door. As for pressure from the left, he said, tauntingly: “What are they going to do, they going to go into West Virginia and campaign against me? Please, that would help me more than anything.”

To a growing number of his Democratic colleagues — and not just liberals — it’s naïve to keep putting hope over history, and believe, as Mr. Manchin said about gun legislation, that Republicans may say, “Listen, it’s time for us to do the reasonable, sensible thing.”

Of course, few in a Senate that depends on Mr. Manchin for a 50th vote will say outright that their colleague is indulging in fantasy.

“Joe’s focus, I believe, is bipartisanship, and I agree with the starting point,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, before lowering the boom: “They weren’t going to give us a single vote,” he said about the stimulus bill.

A former high school quarterback who friends say still relishes being at the center of the action, Mr. Manchin is something of a unicorn in today’s Congress. As a pro-coal and anti-abortion Democrat, he reflects a less-homogenized era when regionalism was as significant as partisanship and senators were more individual actors than predictable votes for their caucus.

Twice elected governor before claiming Mr. Byrd’s seat, he’s the only lawmaker standing in the way of an all-Republican congressional delegation in West Virginia, a state that former President Donald J. Trump carried by nearly 40 points last year. And he is an unlikely majority-maker of the Democratic Senate.

“We really are the big tent,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, before knowingly adding: “Now it’s a lot of work when you have a big tent, right? But that’s the way we have a majority.”

While out of step with his national party on some issues, and written off by parts of the left as little better than a Republican, his politics are more complex, even confounding, than they appear at first glance.

He provided the deciding vote on two of the biggest liberal priorities of this era — blocking repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017 and on passage of the nearly $2 trillion stimulus bill this month — while also twice voting to convict an impeached president wildly popular in his home state.

And while he may admire Mr. Byrd’s dedication to Senate tradition, Mr. Manchin has not emulated his predecessor by leveraging his power to focus relentlessly on steering spending projects back to West Virginia.

When Mr. Manchin was holding out on a single amendment that was delaying passage of the stimulus bill, White House aides were perplexed because his price for supporting the measure was not additional money for his impoverished home state. His main request, West Wing officials said, was to pare back spending and consider Republican input that could have made the bill appear more moderate.

Mr. Manchin said President Biden warned him in a phone call that the progressive left in the House might balk if the bill were significantly trimmed. “I said, ‘Mr. President, all we’re trying to do is put some guard rails on this,’” he recalled.

He was less happy about Vice President Kamala Harris’s effort to nudge him on the legislation by making an appearance on a television affiliate in West Virginia to promote the bill without forewarning him. The clip went viral and, Mr. Manchin said, prompted cleanup conversations with Mr. Biden and the White House chief of staff, Ron Klain.

As for any pressure that he may feel on the filibuster, Mr. Manchin said he had reminded Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, of how essential he was to providing Democrats a majority.

He said he had told Mr. Schumer, “I know one thing, Chuck, you wouldn’t have this problem at all if I wasn’t here.”

He is not the only impediment to the sort of expansive liberal agenda preferred by many congressional Democrats or even the only one still defending the filibuster. Other Senate Democrats, including Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, also share his reluctance.

Yet none are as eager as Mr. Manchin to restore a bygone day of collegiality. And perhaps, more to the point, none are as happy as him to talk about the need to do so as he navigates representing a once-heavily Democratic state that had been shifting to the G.O.P. even before Mr. Trump arrived on the scene.

He crossed the aisle last year to endorse his closest Republican ally, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, and is already co-hosting bipartisan lunches with her. He is plotting the post-pandemic restoration of his pizza-and-beer parties on the boat he calls home while in Washington. (It’s called “Almost Heaven,” the opening lyric to John Denver’s ode to West Virginia.)

Although some of his colleagues relish the ideologically-charged prime-time cable news programs, Mr. Manchin prefers another Washington institution that also flourished in less-polarized times: the Sunday morning show.

In the fashion of many former governors who grow exasperated with Washington’s glacial pace, at times he can barely contain his impatience. He’s repeatedly mused about leaving the Senate and trying to reclaim his old job in Charleston.

But those who know Mr. Manchin well believe he likes the attention that he receives in the capital, the same as he did as a signal-caller in Farmington, W.V., where he grew up near Nick Saban, the legendary football coach at the University of Alabama and a lifelong friend of Mr. Manchin.

“You’re in the hot seat when you’re a quarterback, but it’s pretty satisfying when you make progress,” said Nick Casey, a Manchin ally and former chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party. Mr. Casey said the senator, who sustained an injury that cut short his playing days, was “the greatest QB who never got to start at West Virginia University — just ask him.”

Steve Williams, the mayor of Huntington, W.V., who served with Mr. Manchin in the state legislature, said: “This is the closest he has been to how he could be as governor, actually driving the agenda, pulling people together.’’

It’s the last part that most animates the senator. Happily bantering with reporters as he positions himself as a lonely, if well-covered, voice for comity, he shifts questions from policy to process.

“Why don’t you ask people when was the last time they took time to talk to some of the people on this side?” Mr. Manchin told a CNN reporter this week. “Try to convince them, or work with them. Have you had dinner with them? Have you had a lunch with them? Have you had a cup of coffee with them? Try something.”

A number of anti-filibuster Senate Democrats, though, are more focused on what Mr. Manchin’s support of the “talking filibuster” could portend.

“I think that gives us a lot of room for discussion,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, adopting a glass-is-half-full perspective.

What does seem clear is that Mr. Manchin is not going to switch parties.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen, although we’d welcome him with open arms,” said Ms. Collins, who has tried in the past to persuade her friend to join Republicans.

It’s not difficult to see why Mr. Manchin remains in his forefathers’ party. A Catholic of Italian descent, he sought John F. Kennedy’s desk when he arrived in the Senate, displays a picture of the slain president in his office lobby and can recall hearing that Massachusetts accent in his kitchen when Kennedy’s brothers came to his parents’ house during the West Virginia primary in 1960.

“Joe reminds me a lot of the old conservative Democrats in Texas,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. “They were born Democrats. They’re going to die Democrats.”

As for the filibuster, Mr. Coons, who was sworn in alongside Mr. Manchin in 2010, said liberals shouldn’t get their hopes up.

Recalling a conversation with somebody who knows Mr. Manchin well, Mr. Coons said this person told him: “If the ghost of Robert Byrd came back to life and said the future of West Virginia itself is on the line he might … think about it.”



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C.D.C. Funding Gun Violence Research For First Time in Decades

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That was the argument he used to help persuade Congress to appropriate money for gun violence research in 2019. The research itself was never banned outright, and in 2013, weeks after the massacre that killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, President Barack Obama directed the C.D.C. to reconsider funding studies on gun violence.

The agency commissioned a report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council outlining priorities, but little changed. By 2019, after Democrats reclaimed the House, liberal organizations like MoveOn.org were petitioning Congress to repeal the Dickey Amendment. Nearly every House Democrat signed on.

But Dr. Rosenberg argued it should remain intact, to “provide cover for Republicans and gun-loving Democrats who can put money into the science and tell their constituents, ‘This is not money for gun control.’ ”

Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chaired the House subcommittee that oversees the C.D.C.’s budget at the time, said she put $50 million into the appropriations bill that year, but the Senate, controlled by Republicans, eliminated it. The two chambers agreed on $25 million as a compromise, but she said she hoped to double the funding this year.

Dr. Naik-Mathuria, the Houston trauma surgeon, said she would like to see Washington address the problem of gun violence as a matter of injury prevention, not politics. She began researching methods to reduce gun violence about six years ago, she said, after seeing “kids come in dead because they shot themselves in the head when they found a gun at home.”

Her current study is aimed at determining risk factors for gun violence for children and adults, and her past work has led to some changes in medical practice, she said.

Pediatricians in Texas, she said, are hesitant to talk about gun safety out of concern that “it would anger parents or become political.” So she and her group made a broader safety video that tucked in messages about gun safety — like keeping guns locked and stored — with tips like how to keep children away from poison.



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Who Are Gavin Newsom’s Enemies?

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There’s still time for a lot to change: If the organizers of the recall effort reach the signature threshold, the vote to recall Mr. Newsom and to choose his successor — both would be done on a single ballot — probably wouldn’t occur until near the end of the year.

That recall effort is being led by Orrin Heatlie, a conservative and a former sergeant in the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department, who as recently as last year shared anti-vaccination and anti-L.G.B.T.Q. views online. But the endeavor has the backing of a number of deep-pocketed political action committees, most of them right-leaning.

Randy Economy, a political consultant and talk-radio host, serves as the lead adviser to Recall Gavin Newsom, the group organizing the effort. He said the governor’s behavior and demeanor had made the recall necessary. “It’s because of Gavin Newsom himself, and the way he conducts himself every day since he’s become governor,” Mr. Economy said in an interview. “It’s all been more about his image and self-aggrandizing, as opposed to fixing the problems.”

Mr. Newsom’s approval rating isn’t nearly as low as Gov. Gray Davis’s was in 2003, when voters ousted him in a recall. Arnold Schwarzenegger, running as a moderate Republican, was the beneficiary of that effort, winning the recall election and going on to serve as governor for more than seven years.

California politics are different — and decidedly more Democratic — than they were 18 years ago. Democrats now have a 2-to-1 advantage in terms of voter registration across the state. Just because there is a Republican-led effort does not mean that a Republican will be the one to ultimately benefit. Mr. Economy, who volunteered in 2016 for Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign but has also worked for Democrats in the past, insisted that his team’s goal was not partisan in nature.

“Our job is not to pick the next governor; our job is to make sure that this governor’s recalled and removed from office,” he said.

The state is light on prominent (let alone popular) G.O.P. politicians, and some ambitious Democrats already appear ready to run through the open door. All of which points to a possible irony: Even if it were to become only the second successful recall effort in California history, the push — led by conservative interests — could ultimately lift up another Democrat, possibly one to the left of Mr. Newsom.



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