But Meadows comes at this as someone who, for more than seven years in Congress, did anything but broker bipartisan peace. The North Carolina Republican helped force John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) into resigning as House speaker in 2015 because Meadows viewed him as too conciliatory to Democrats. He undercut a budget deal that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had greased in December 2018, sending the federal government into a 35-day shutdown that ended with a complete GOP surrender.
“He’s an idiot. I can’t tell you what makes him tick,” Boehner told Politico Magazine in 2017, in a particularly unencumbered interview more than a year after he retired.
In short, many Democrats wonder what Meadows’s presence in negotiations means for what is likely the last major legislation before Election Day in November, one critical to the tens of millions of unemployed Americans and President Trump’s bid for a second term.
Officially, Meadows is promoting Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as the lead negotiator.
“He’s done an outstanding job. He and I talk probably, not only a daily basis, but sometimes an hourly basis. We’ve been working very closely with our congressional colleagues, both in the House and in the Senate. I fully expect that he will lead the charge,” Meadows told reporters in a brief news conference Monday outside the White House.
But Republicans are now privately clamoring for Meadows to play a significant role, because they believe House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have gotten the better of Mnuchin in those recent rounds of coronavirus-related negotiations, as well as a trade deal and budget framework last year.
According to GOP advisers in the Capitol and the Trump administration, Meadows and Mnuchin expect to play a tag-team role in the talks that will begin in earnest when the House and Senate return July 20 from a midsummer legislative break. They will have a roughly two-week deadline to come up with a new set of proposals that could easily crest the $1 trillion mark.
The advisers spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the upcoming strategy.
The treasury secretary can still be the main voice talking to the Democratic leadership, while the chief of staff can be there to reassure anxious Republicans fearful that Mnuchin will give away the store just to get a deal.
Other presidents have turned to a former congressman during rough patches. Bill Clinton named Leon Panetta (D-Calif.), the former House Budget Committee chairman, his chief of staff in the summer of 1994 just before Republicans won both chambers in the midterms. Panetta guided him through tense budget talks with GOP leaders and his 1996 reelection.
Ronald Reagan turned to former Senate majority leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) after Democrats won the Senate in the 1986 midterms.
Trump’s first attempt at this was the exact opposite. He chose Mick Mulvaney, a former ideological bomb-thrower in the House, to move from budget director to take over the West Wing.
He clashed with Pelosi last summer on budget talks, prompting her to tell the White House she would no longer talk to Mulvaney, and thus began the Mnuchin-Pelosi bond.
By late March, however, as Mnuchin was close to finalizing the more than $2 trillion Cares Act, Senate Republicans had grown weary of the treasury secretary’s good relations with Pelosi and Schumer.
A week before Meadows officially took over for Mulvaney, he arrived with Mnuchin in the Capitol for meetings in McConnell’s office the day before the Cares deal was announced.
The Senate unanimously approved that legislation and did so again a few weeks later when it injected $484 billion more into the Paycheck Protection Program and other accounts run by the Small Business Administration, talks that served as Meadows’s first modest attempt to play any detailed part in coronavirus-related legislation.
“I want to thank Secretary Mnuchin — I spent hours and hours with him at all hours of the day. I want to thank someone I didn’t know very well — Chief of Staff Meadows — who is very good at making sure an agreement can come to fruition even in the wee hours of the morning,” Schumer said in an April 21 floor speech before the additional PPP funds were approved.
Meadows has the charming personality that, in outward appearances, makes him seem like a natural fit for chief of staff. Unlike Mulvaney with his irksome temperament, Meadows can light up a room with jokes and remember details about people’s lives that make them feel appreciated.
Pelosi’s inner circle describes a cordial relationship with Meadows but one that does not have a lot in common, other than their shared love of the late congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). On Feb. 27, eight days before Trump selected Meadows as his new chief of staff, Pelosi and Meadows spoke at a ceremony naming the Oversight Committee’s hearing room after Cummings, a move that Meadows openly supported after building a friendship with the Baltimore Democrat who chaired the panel as Meadows served as its ranking Republican.
“He scared me to death, just to be blunt,” Meadows said of his late friend, drawing laughter from many Democrats in the room.
At the White House on Monday, Meadows told reporters that these negotiations are critical — PPP expires in early August and a generous unemployment benefit expires July 31, two programs that have propped up a reeling economy. He noted that once Congress leaves for its late summer break, very little else will happen this year.
“Everybody looks at this as the last train leaving the station, so they want to attach some of those special-interest needs to that,” he said.
But there’s apprehension about whether Meadows will revert to his days as a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, the conservative faction that torpedoed even small immigration compromises and persuaded Trump to shut down the government in late 2018. In 2013, Meadows locked arms with conservatives to force a shutdown over their unsuccessful bid to defund portions of the Affordable Care Act.
Pelosi is already dismissing GOP hints that they would like this round of legislation to come in under the $1 trillion threshold, which Democrats consider woefully insufficient.
“So, $1 trillion is okay, that’s an interesting starting point,” she told reporters at her weekly Thursday news conference.
For now, Meadows is sending signals that he wants to be the dealmaker, someone who is open to hearing every proposal from all sides. “I don’t know that there’s any red lines right now,” Meadows said Monday.
It’s the role of a lifetime.