It isn’t every day that Republican Rep. Sam Graves picks up his cell phone and hears from a Cabinet secretary – let alone a Democrat.
But the conservative Missouri congressman who serves as ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has been struck by how often he and Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have talked about infrastructure since the former mayor and presidential candidate was confirmed two months ago.
“He calls my cell phone and I have his,” said Graves, who said he was surprised by how “accessible” the secretary has been. “It certainly is just nice to be able to talk to somebody and talk about that different points of view and the pros and the cons without getting into an argument and just shutting off and then starting in with name calling. … That is very refreshing.”
Buttigieg, after two months on the job, has become one of the most ubiquitous faces in the Biden administration’s push to pass a sweeping $2 trillion infrastructure bill, vaulting the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and the leader of an often-overlooked government agency to one of the most high-profile secretaries in Biden’s Cabinet. The push has Buttigieg regularly making media appearances, meeting with interest groups and, on Friday, addressing the press about infrastructure from the White House briefing room– all of which both helps the Biden administration and, to the enjoyment of Buttigieg’s political supporters, raises the former mayor’s profile.
The conversations between Buttigieg and Republican lawmakers, according to multiple members of congress, routinely focus on the concerns that those conservatives have with the Biden plan, like how much it will cost and the view that much of it doesn’t focus on traditional infrastructure. But each lawmaker CNN spoke to said they left their conversations with the Transportation Secretary struck by how they felt listened to, something they said wasn’t often the case with other Democrats.
It’s possible – even likely – that Buttigieg’s outreach to Republicans will fail to move any Republican lawmakers. Still, Buttigieg’s prominent role in the pitch has some of his earliest political champions buzzing about what a successful infrastructure bill would mean for a Democratic politician who clearly harbors future aspirations.
Virginia Rep. Don Beyer, Buttigieg’s first congressional endorsement, acknowledged these thoughts at a recent event where he went off-script and jokingly referred to Buttigieg as a “future president of the United States.”
“He looked surprised. … I don’t know whether I imagined a grimace or not,” Beyer said with a laugh. But the desire for Buttigieg to continue his upward climb was apparent for Beyer, who nodded to the expected fight for which Democrat tries to succeed Biden. “I was careful not to say the next, I didn’t want to pick a fight between Pete and (Vice President) Kamala (Harris).”
‘He seems… much more willing to work with us’
After years of infrastructure reform being the policy often talked about but never pursued, the Biden administration, has made remaking the nation’s infrastructure its second policy priority, just behind the sweeping coronavirus relief bill that passed in March.
To sell the plan to skeptical Republicans, Biden has tapped five of his secretaries – Buttigieg, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo – to be his chief salespeople, labeling the group his “Jobs Cabinet.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday that the group has made 56 calls to lawmakers, including 28 Democrats and 28 Republicans who are the chairs and ranking members on relevant committees.
For Buttigieg, a politician who has risen to prominence by touting his ability to reach out to Republicans, the effort is an attempt to make good on that pledge by focusing some of his attention on Republicans in Congress, many of whom have slammed Biden’s proposal as not being focused enough on physical infrastructure. And Republicans have seemingly responded, telling CNN that while they don’t agree with everything the mayor says, they believe he is coming to the conversations with an open mind and the eye of someone who once led a city.
So far, the secretary has had conversations with Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican who represents a district in South Florida; Rick Crawford, a senior member of the House Transportation committee who represents a solidly Republican area of Arkansas; and Rodney Davis, a top Illinois Republican on the House Highways and Transit subcommittee, according to details provided by the Department of Transportation.
Buttigieg has also had talked with Republican Sens. John Barrasso, Shelly Moore Capito and Susan Collins, as well as a bipartisan group of mayors and governors through the U.S. Conference of Mayors and National Governors Association.
“It is critical,” said Mayor Jeff Williams of Arlington, Texas, a Republican who was elected to the non-partisan role in 2015, said of passing an infrastructure reform plan. Williams said he has been part of conversations with Buttigieg on infrastructure. “I think there are valid criticisms (of the plan), but let’s don’t lose sight of what we need to have happen.”
Whether these efforts work to move Republican voters remains an open question.
“The relationship really doesn’t have a lot to do with whether I support something at the end of the day,” Graves said when asked about the bill. “It is about policy and it is about my district.”
Davis told CNN that he has talked to Buttigieg twice over the last few months, once in the Oval Office during a meeting with Biden and Harris and another time over the phone. But his primary concern is that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are leading the process, not Buttigieg.
“It’s unfortunate because I do believe the Democrats are going to choose the path of reconciliation,” said Davis, referring to a Senate procedure that would allow the bill to pass with no Republican support.
Asked if he thinks the proposed plan would be different if Buttigieg were in charge, Davis said, “Yes.”
“He seems to be much more willing to work with us,” he said. “But sometimes, administrations don’t get to choose the processes that are utilized.”
Buttigieg told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Monday that while they are at the “beginning of a legislative process that’ll have a lot of back and forth” between Democrats and Republicans, “at the end of the day, [President Joe Biden] will decide what the right balance is.”
A Senate Democratic aide on Capitol Hill told CNN that it actually surprised top Democrats on Capitol Hill that Buttigieg was not met with more partisan resistance.
“Pete Buttigieg ran for the Democratic nomination. Inherently, he should be somebody that the Republicans on Capitol Hill naturally dislike. He ran on a bunch of progressive Democratic priorities,” the aide said. “But he’s already put in a lot of the necessary work and now Republicans and Democrats alike - from the most progressive to the most moderate - feel like he’s someone they can work well with.”
The other role Buttigieg is playing is as television pitch man, regularly appearing on local and national TV to sell the bill to voters. The secretary has done local news hits for cities across the country, including Las Vegas; Pittsburgh; Dayton, Ohio; Miami; Quad Cities, Iowa; Atlanta; Milwaukee and Dallas.
This role mimics the one Buttigieg stepped into during the 2020 general election, where he was one of the most active surrogates for then-candidate Biden. Now that Biden is president, Buttigieg – deployed by the White House – has both talked with media and attended virtual meetings with interest groups, including groups like the National Urban League, Sierra Club and the NAACP.
“President Biden and the White House asked Secretary Buttigieg to play a leading role in developing the President’s recovery agenda and building public support for the Rescue Plan, the Secretary’s done an admirable job in that work and in communicating it to the American people,” a White House official who asked for anonymity to speak openly about Buttigieg’s role.
A secretary with higher aspirations
There is a political reality to Buttigieg’s work, too: Acting as one of the primary salespeople for the Biden infrastructure plan has further elevated the former presidential candidate’s profile, exposing him to audiences and groups that he never had ties to when he launched a longshot presidential bid in 2019.
And if the infrastructure plan is successful, people closely tracking the mayor’s political rise believe it will offer numerous opportunities to the secretary to travel the country, give speeches and kick off infrastructure projects, the kind of appearances an aspiring elected official is desperate to do. The job has also already offered the former mayor needed federal government experience.
“Some of the fair criticisms (during his presidential campaign) was that he’d just been the mayor of a small town in Indiana… no big Washington experience managing a significant part of the federal government,” said Beyer. “And now he does.”
Beyer said those politically interested in Buttigieg’s rise “knew he probably wasn’t ready to be secretary of state or secretary of defense,” but that they also “didn’t want him pushed off into a corner some place.” Transportation, he said, is “a perfect” role.
Whether this time in Buttigieg’s career ends up helping him politically largely depends on the success of this and other bills.
Buttigieg, at just 39 years old, is expected run for some elected office in the future after running for president in 2020 and people around him have not been shy about his obvious presidential aspirations.
No Cabinet secretary in the modern era has gone on to the White House – the last person to do it was Herbert Hoover – and a Democrat close to the former mayor told CNN that the secretary’s longer term political goals were not part of his motivation for taking on the job.
“What is true and what also he would tell you is that the most important part of this is that it is using those relationships and developing those relationships to support the White House,” the Democrat said. “That shit doesn’t matter if the infrastructure bill doesn’t happen and if he doesn’t use those relationships to accomplish the goals the White House has laid out for the department.”
The source, who asked for anonymity to speak openly about Buttigieg’s political prospects, added: “Who cares if you know those people. If you haven’t delivered and done what you are said you were going to do, it is worthless.”