On April 10, the day President Obama released his 2014 budget, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough held a secret meeting with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan at a K Street restaurant, Brasserie Beck, to talk, among other things, about possible resolutions to the deficit reduction standoff.
As I report in this week’s TIME magazine, an article that is only available to magazine or tablet subscribers online, the meeting was productive, even if it produced no breakthroughs. “He’s a Minnesota Irish Catholic guy, and I’m a Wisconsin Irish Catholic guy,” Ryan told me, after the conversation. “It quickly dawned on me that we can work together.”
“It was the first time I have had a candid conversation or a substantial conversation with a member of the Obama administration since they came into power,” Ryan added.
The discussion, over beer, included talk about spending levels and paths to reaching a deal, but was not intended as a negotiating session. Rather it was part of a large scale outreach effort by the White House, coordinated by McDonough to increase communication between the White House and Congress, and between Democrats and Republicans.
The Belgian restaurant lists 115 beers on its menu, but not Miller Lite, Ryan’s beer of choice. “I ended up getting some lager I’d never heard of,” said Ryan, who mistook the place for a French joint. But it turned out McDonough had done his homework in other ways. He knew that Ryan had graduated from Miami University in Ohio the same year as his own wife Kari. Both men hailed from former frontier towns in the upper Midwest, and both had been drawn to Washington as young congressional aides. They were nerds, in the best sense of the word, and they were fierce competitors.
At the same time McDonough and Ryan met, President Obama hosted a dinner at the White House for a dozen Republican Senators. Since then the outreach effort has continued, both in public and private. The President golfed Monday with two Republican Senators, and McDonough has been up to the Hill to meet with other Republican Senators. Much more is happening behind the scenes, in conversations between staff, and outreach from the White House. On Wednesday night, Obama hosted House Democratic leaders in a dinner at the Jefferson Hotel, where he met with Republican Senators in March.
Among the other tidbits in my TIME story on McDonough’s tenure as Chief of Staff:
- Borrowing from the intelligence community, McDonough has organized “red team” drills inside the West Wing to look for policy or political holes in the State of the Union Address and the budget. In both cases, staff were assigned to analyze the documents as if they were political opponents.
- McDonough put himself in the hospital during the 2008 campaign while planning candidate Obama’s foreign trip, due to a bad reaction to a sleeping pill after too many days of little sleep. Doctors advised him not to go on the trip, advice which he disregarded.
- McDonough used to have a standing bet with CIA director John Brennan when they both worked on national security in the White House basement. Once a week, they would promise each other to get home to their families by 7 p.m. Often they both failed.
For much more, pick up a copy of the magazine, or the tablet edition, by subscribing online. $30 a year. Or $2.99 a month. Well worth the price, in this reporter’s humble opinion.