A Delaware Senator Turns D.C. Power Broker (That’s Right: Chris Coons)

A top ally of President Biden’s has major responsibilities as the clock ticks on the White House’s agenda and bipartisanship proves elusive.


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Roll the clock back a few decades, and the longtime junior senator from Delaware was often at the heart of negotiations on Capitol Hill.

He helped to shape legislation on violence against women, crime and foreign policy. And though he was a Democrat, he took pride in his friendships with members of the Republican Party — relationships that often served him well when it came time to reach across the aisle in search of votes.

Back then, that senator’s name was Joe Biden. But today, a similar dynamic is at play with his successor, Senator Chris Coons, who came of age under Mr. Biden’s wing, won election to Mr. Biden’s former seat in 2010, and is now one of the president’s closest confidants in the chamber. Like Mr. Biden, Mr. Coons is a relative moderate with a proclivity for bipartisan deal-making, and as the administration navigates the politics of an evenly divided Senate, he has been working with both Democrats and Republicans to advance the White House’s agenda.

But four months into the administration, major bipartisan legislation continues to prove elusive, and with the 2022 midterms approaching fast, Mr. Coons admits that the clock is ticking. Will he be able to help Mr. Biden bring enough Republicans on board to reach the 60-vote threshold on legislation around infrastructure? Or criminal justice? Or competition with China?

These questions were front-of-mind for our congressional reporter Luke Broadwater as he trailed Mr. Coons around the Senate in recent days. Today, Luke published a profile of the senator, and he took a moment this afternoon to answer a few questions about what he’d learned reporting it.

Hi, Luke. Chris Coons has been a mentee of Joe Biden’s for decades, starting when Biden was among the most powerful negotiators in the Senate. Now, Coons is filling a similar role. It’s a “student becomes the master” kind of moment. How crucial has Biden been to the development of Coons’s career?

I would say that Biden has been quite influential to Coons’s career. In many ways, Coons has followed a similar path. He started as an intern for Biden, became his mentee on the New Castle County Council, campaigned for him in Iowa and now holds the seat that once belonged to him. He takes the train home to Delaware on Thursdays, as Biden famously did.

After Biden won the presidential election, Coons briefly held out hope of becoming secretary of state. Instead, he’s still in the Senate — where he has become something like the White House’s eyes and ears. How crucial is he to helping the Biden administration navigate the Senate?

Biden is well-known as a creature of the Senate who loves to invite his old colleagues to the White House for hourslong discussions.

That said, Coons spends much of his day trying to aid the Biden administration’s agenda on the Hill however he can. He’s constantly talking to Republicans, gathering their concerns and feedback, and reporting back to his contacts at the White House. He often ends conversations with the White House with the phrase, “Is there anything else I can do to be helpful?”

He’s also engaged in some foreign policy work on behalf of the Biden administration, including traveling to Ethiopia, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.

In your article, you quote Coons as saying that the window for passing bipartisan bills this Congress is quickly closing. What are the big pieces of legislation he sees as possible, and how is he feeling about their chances?

Coons says he’s focused on trying to help Democrats reach deals with Republicans on four major pieces of legislation: China competitiveness, infrastructure, immigration reform and policing reform.

From what I can tell, he’s not necessarily involved as a primary negotiator on these bills, but he’s playing a role as an adviser and sounding board, particularly for Republicans. He told me he doesn’t believe Congress will get deals on all four, but is confident at least one will reach fruition. “The question is: Will we get one, two, three or four?” he said.

To me, the Endless Frontier Act, led by Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, and Senator Todd Young, Republican of Indiana, seems most likely to pass.

Coons also talked to you about having to reinvent the wheel when it comes to bipartisan deal-making, since Mitch McConnell basically rendered the practice extinct during his time as majority leader. How has Coons gone about bringing Republicans into the fold and re-establishing the practice of reaching across the aisle?

It’s no secret the Senate has taken on a reputation as a legislative graveyard for the bills passed by the more liberal House. The government watchdog group Common Cause ranked the last Congress the “least productive in history,” noting that only about 1 percent of bills introduced became law.

I think Coons would say he’s working to change that just by constantly listening to Republicans and being practical about what’s possible in a Congress where the legislative filibuster is still a reality.

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