WASHINGTON — Through four months in the Oval Office, President Joe Biden found great utility in articulating clear public goals — even unambitious ones — to focus his team's efforts privately and demonstrate forward momentum publicly when met.
But the timelines he set for key legislative initiatives pose an immediate test as his presidency enters a new phase, moving from the crisis atmosphere he inherited to setting his own course.
The marker Biden set to pass a major police reform bill couldn't have been clearer — he urged lawmakers directly in his address to Congress last month to "get it done next month, by the first anniversary of George Floyd's death." But as it became clear that no bill would arrive by Tuesday, White House officials spent last week wrestling with how Biden could mark the moment, instead.
One idea, a meeting with key congressional negotiators, was discounted over concern that it might disrupt the sensitive negotiations, which was reinforced as lawmakers made it clear that they wanted no part.
"I'm comfortable with people I'm negotiating with right now," said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the linchpin for any hopes of a bipartisan deal.
Instead, Biden will host members of Floyd's family at the White House.
As the date approaches, the White House is downplaying the political goals and focusing on the personal connection.
"The president has spoken repeatedly to how meaningful his relationship with the Floyd family is to him," an official said, "and on the first anniversary of George Floyd's passing it is important to him to hear from them about their perspective on this moment in our history and the progress that must be made in order to stop the agonizing trend of people of color being killed at the hands of law enforcement and to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve."
The policing bill isn't the only area in which the administration appears likely to miss a self-imposed deadline.
The White House had set a more vague goal of "progress" on Biden's $2.25 trillion jobs bill by Memorial Day. But after top White House officials offered their latest counterproposal Friday to the group of senators key to any bipartisan path on infrastructure, Republicans declared that they were "further apart after two meetings with White House staff than they were after one meeting with President Biden."
As the legislative deadlines have neared, officials have begun quietly dismissing them. Calling for a deal on police reform was simply aspirational, an official said. The definition of what "progress" looks like on an infrastructure deal, meanwhile, remains ill-defined.
"In terms of where we will be right before or around Memorial Day, our hope is that we will have a better sense on the path forward and what the opportunity is looking ahead," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week, saying the two or so weeks leading up to it are "a lifetime in legislating."
The White House has taken starkly different approaches to each measure.
There has been a full-court press to bridge the gap between Biden's more than $2 trillion jobs bill and its broad definition of infrastructure and the scaled-back proposal from Republicans. Senior members of the Cabinet and top advisers have been working directly with the group of GOP senators, led by Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.
But the deadline also comes with a backup plan. In case momentum stalls on the infrastructure bill by Memorial Day, Democrats are also developing a strategy to move ahead for yet another deadline the White House has set: to have a bill moving through Congress by July.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is ready to begin moving forward with a more robust infrastructure bill next month, a White House official said, which ultimately would have to go through the same reconciliation process that allowed Biden's Covid-19 relief bill to pass the Senate with only Democratic votes.
Democratic staff members met Thursday with Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth McDonough to discuss reconciliation, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., confirmed Friday.
In relation to the Floyd bill, however, the White House appears to be more in observer mode. Psaki said last week that the White House remains "deeply engaged" with the negotiators and stays abreast of their progress. "The president, of course, is eager to sign a bill. ... But we feel that is best placed in those negotiations and those constructive negotiations that are happening between members on the Hill."
Asked about the White House's deadline last week, Scott said: "I've never found it helpful to negotiate with anybody other than those that have votes." Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., said, "The most important thing is that we have a bill that hits the president's desk, not the date that it does."
Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., who is also involved in the talks, said, "We're going to take the time necessary to get it right."
The debate in the White House about how to mark the anniversary of Floyd's death is twofold, an official familiar with the discussions said. Some officials are concerned about doing anything that might scuttle legislative negotiations that are still viewed as productive. Biden is also "trying to balance bringing law enforcement back into the tent while appropriately remembering what put them out of the tent," the official said.
And even as the congressional negotiators brushed off Biden's deadline, a White House official has cautioned them about the risk of the talks' dragging on too much longer, heading into a summer when racial justice protests are likely to continue and midterm election politics may increasingly loom larger.
Asked whether negotiations would take months, Scott suggested something of an informal deadline himself.
"Two months from now we'll either be done celebrating or we won't be done at all," he said.