WASHINGTON — On the last day of June, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell tweeted that Republicans were pulling their support for a major bill investing in semiconductor manufacturing and scientific research, citing Democrats’ unrelated efforts to pass a party-line climate and health care package.
Suddenly, the elusive deal that Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo had been working on intensely for over a year — practically from the moment she was confirmed in March 2021 — seemed to collapse as time was running out before Congress left town for the summer.
So the former Rhode Island governor did what she’d been doing for 16 months — she got on the phone.
“I called every other Republican in the Senate and said, ‘OK, where do we go from here?’” Raimondo recalled in an interview. “‘What’s the plan? It’s not dead, how do we keep it alive?’”
It was one of “many moments” when Raimondo said the more than $200 billion bill seemed dead, only to be brought back to life. It ultimately passed Congress last week and is set to be signed into law by President Biden on Tuesday. This is in no small part due to Raimondo herself, who, while not the most well-known member of Biden’s Cabinet, has made herself an integral player on Capitol Hill.
In fact, in a deeply divided and partisan Washington, Raimondo is the rare politician who draws high praise from such disparate sources as conservative Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker and progressive “Squad” member and Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib.
“Gina Raimondo might be the best appointment Joe Biden has made during his time in office,” Wicker said.
“I’ve never had a secretary this transparent,” said Tlaib.
Top congressional players on the bill touted Raimondo’s bipartisan and business sensibilities as a former venture capital executive, saying they were crucial in the negotiations on the legislation, which is designed to alleviate the nation’s supply chain issues by spurring semiconductor manufacturers to build factories in the United States.
“This bill would not become law without her work,” said Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and said he worked with Raimondo on the bill on a “daily, if not hourly, basis.”
“She’s been relentless,” Warner said.
Raimondo was able to translate negotiating skills honed during her time as governor of the smallest state in the union to the more intimidating US Capitol, where many Cabinet members rarely venture unless required to testify in front of committees.
Those who knew her in Rhode Island are not surprised, recalling her as a treasurer and governor who, once set on a goal, was driven to meet it, even when it dismayed some in her own party. Even some who opposed her developed a begrudging respect for her as someone who was always communicative and willing to cut deals or change strategies.
One former sparring partner of hers over pension reform, Robert A. Walsh Jr., the former executive director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island, also used the word “relentless” to describe Raimondo, laughing loudly when asked how Raimondo works when she has her mind set on something.
“She is single-minded and deeply focused, and she does work the phones,” Walsh said. “I have friends whose names I will not disclose who were often her first calls, and it was early in the morning.”
Charged by Biden with reinvigorating manufacturing and helping fix the nation’s supply chain issues, Raimondo made the CHIPS and Science Act, as it was finally called, a top priority. The bill will invest $52 billion in American semiconductor manufacturing, which supporters say is essential for both American technology and national security. Advanced chips are overwhelmingly produced overseas, many in Taiwan, giving the Chinese control over a sector that is critical to everything from modern cars to American military weaponry.
The bill also makes sweeping investments in scientific research, including starting a technology directorate at the National Science Foundation with $20 billion, pouring $17 billion into the Department of Energy for related research and development, and creating a network of regional technology hubs across the country with $10 billion.
The bill was boiled down to just those priorities after McConnell seemingly pulled the plug on it in June.
“That turning point said, ‘OK, we’re gonna have to skinny down the bill,’” Raimondo said. “You could spend a lot of time hand-wringing over the politics and the ups and the downs and the media. Or you could just say, ‘OK, that was a curveball. Where do we go from here?’”
Raimondo, along with White House officials involved in the negotiations, stressed the national security implications of not passing the bill as they tried to push Republicans back to the table. She held classified briefings for the Senate and House in mid-July featuring top national security officials that helped make the case for the legislation, according to lawmakers in attendance.
All told, Raimondo took more than 300 calls and meetings with lawmakers on the bill over the more than a year she worked on it, and another 250 meetings with outside interests including businesses, trade groups, and unions, according to her office.
Due to her venture capital background, Raimondo had a natural rapport with the tech sector — a relationship that is sometimes criticized by progressives as too close.
But her outreach also extended to other, less familiar corners, including a number of former Trump administration officials. Raimondo connected with former national security adviser H.R. McMaster after a member of her security detail heard him talking about CHIPS and Raimondo’s work on Joe Rogan’s podcast. She also “cold-called” former secretary of state and CIA director Mike Pompeo, who was helpful in recruiting former colleagues in the House.
Along the way, McConnell softened his stance after the Democratic effort to pass its party-line climate bill appeared to stall, and negotiations on CHIPS resumed.
Once Republicans came back to the fold, the next task was getting Democrats fully on board with a slimmer bill. Raimondo also had been in constant contact with progressives — including Tlaib and Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Progressives had concerns the bill was a giveaway to a tech sector that would only use the money to enrich shareholders instead of building factories. In the Senate, Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, who was the only vote against it among the Democratic caucus, blasted the bill as a “blank check,” “bribe,” and “corporate welfare” given to a sector that’s already hugely profitable.
Raimondo leaned into some progressives’ demands to keep them on board — reinstating money for scientific research and pledging in writing that the Commerce Department would not allow companies to use the money to pad their profit margins.
“I’m counting on her for that,” said Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has questioned Raimondo’s coziness with the tech sector. “She has put in strong statements, and progressives will hold her to them.”
There was one last hiccup. Shortly after the bill sailed through the Senate with 64 votes, Senate Democrats announced a deal to move forward on their climate bill. Republicans claimed betrayal and threatened to defect from the House vote.
Raimondo was working up until the last minute, virtually joining a meeting with the Congressional Progressive Caucus the afternoon of the House vote. They closed ranks: All Democrats but one voted for it, and 24 Republicans ultimately joined them.
“She knows how to cut a deal that’s acceptable to the right and the left,” said Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee. “She was willing to agree to half a loaf and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
What Raimondo does with her acquired political capital in Washington remains to be seen. At 51, she is widely believed to have aspirations for higher office, though a recent New Hampshire poll found her at 0 percent as first or second choice for president among voters in that state.
Still, though she lacks the name recognition of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, for example, she seems to be held in higher esteem by Congress. In a recent House hearing on lead exposure from aviation fuel, California Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat, said four lawmakers sent Buttigieg a letter on the issue in February that went unanswered, and they “tried to call the secretary of transportation, the four of us, and he refused to take our phone call.”
Meanwhile, numerous lawmakers described Raimondo as quick to answer text messages.
“There are members who are routinely calling and texting the secretary of commerce, which is not always the case with Cabinet secretaries,” Rhode Island Democratic Representative David Cicilline said. “She has made herself very accessible.”
Next up, Raimondo will oversee the implementation program doling out tens of billions of dollars — and progressives will be watching to see that the money actually goes to building factories and not shareholder profits.
But for now, Raimondo is celebrating.
“I had so many big but difficult and controversial pieces of legislation that we were able to accomplish when I was governor, and they all take longer than you think they should, they all are roller-coaster rides,” Raimondo said. “But if you stick with it and refuse to stop, things get done.”