This patient Republican has Biden by the ear, one night a year

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) knows how to lie in wait.

When the State of the Union address finishes, Republicans rush for the exits, anxious to blast President Biden’s speech to conservative media, while Democrats pour into the well of the House to high-five their leader and pose for selfies.

Every year, LaMalfa will patiently wait toward the back of the room and position himself along the aisle that all presidents use to enter and exit the big speech. His moment arrived again late Thursday night when Biden spotted him and joked about hoping the burly, six-term lawmaker wouldn’t beat him up.

“I didn’t do it, I swear to God, I didn’t do it,” Biden joked with LaMalfa.

For the next three minutes, LaMalfa, the chairman of the House Agriculture forestry subcommittee, had the full attention of the leader of the free world. And with that precious time, he made his pitch to force the U.S. Forest Service to speed up permits for harvesting timber.

“We gotta cut some trees,” LaMalfa told Biden.

This unique approach might not produce immediate policy changes the conservative wants, but it quickly opens lines of communication.

By Friday morning, LaMalfa’s chief of staff had an in-person meeting with a senior aide from Biden’s legislative affairs team, and Interior Department officials reached out to set up more meetings.

He first honed this approach of staking out the key spot after the speech finishes during the Trump years. He used his brief conversations to ask for help on water issues that are key to this rice farmer’s rural, agriculture-based northeastern California district.

But the talks with Biden take on greater importance because his administration’s focus on fighting climate change is often at odds with LaMalfa’s more industry-aligned outlook.

To some degree, this makes LaMalfa a true congressional unicorn, especially when it comes to the increasingly boisterous presidential addresses to Congress. He doesn’t want to score quick, cheap political points in conservative news outlets, like so many other House Republicans.

“I try to get wins. I don’t think you do that by poking somebody in the eye. I mean, there’s ways to call out things you disagree with and you think are bad policy: Talk about the policy, don’t make it too personal,” LaMalfa said Friday during an interview off the House floor.

Few Republicans embrace his approach. From the moment Biden walked into the House chamber and down the center aisle, some shouted at him about his handling of the migrant crisis on the border. Another yelled “lies!” when Biden accused former president Donald Trump of failing “to care” about Americans during the pandemic.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) donned a Trump campaign hat the entire speech, declining entreaties to adhere to House rules against headwear, and yelled at Biden about his border policy, starting an impromptu back-and-forth that mostly served to make him look presidential.

A dozen or more Republicans simply walked out of the speech, believing they had become props for a political pep rally.

LaMalfa agrees with almost all of his GOP colleagues in their critique.

“This was a campaign speech. This was a kind of in-your-face one that was not the unifying type of talk that he had at his inaugural,” he said. In his January 2021 inauguration speech, the new president vowed “to restore the soul” of America.

LaMalfa was at odds with Democrats even then. He voted to object to certifying both Arizona and Pennsylvania in the 2020 presidential election. He still questions whether Pennsylvania’s officials violated the law by changing ballot processes, despite court rulings that upheld those moves.

And, on policy issues, he places himself “not far from” the House Freedom Caucus, a far-right faction that includes some of Biden’s hecklers who helped drive LaMalfa’s friend of more than two decades, former congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), out of the speaker’s office last year.

But tactics have become one of the most important dividing lines in today’s Republican Party, where the most aggressive approach too often gets treated as if it’s the purest form of ideology.

And LaMalfa has taken the approach that political honey, not vinegar, leads to more success and friends. He’s quite friendly with the ultimate political enemy for House Republicans — Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — from regularly attending the annual gala dinner hosted by the National Italian American Foundation as well as other California delegation events.

When Pelosi announced in late 2022 that she was leaving leadership after 20 years as the top Democrat, LaMalfa was among a small group of Republicans to attend her speech and congratulate her in person. She has a standing offer for dinner at his ranch.

Before coming to the House in 2013, LaMalfa served eight years deep in the minority as a Republican in the California legislature, where he met McCarthy. They learned Democratic allies were the only hope for victories.

“When you’re building something, you have to build it with the whole spectrum of the people that are there,” he said. “You don’t pass anything around here without Democrat support.”

So, for the last three years, LaMalfa has used the annual grand speech as the moment that he can get into Biden’s ear, quite literally.

Unlike the several dozen lawmakers from both parties who fight for aisle seats ahead of the speech, LaMalfa plots for the end of the night.

“When everybody else has done all the things — the Democrats all took their picture with the president, or the Republicans if it’s Trump — I’ll hang in the back in order to get that quality moment, hopefully, when it’s all died down,” he explained.

By this time, the major TV networks and cable news channels have all cut away to their high-paid analysts to talk about the speech, leaving only C-SPAN offering the TV pool feed. Its boom mic often captures these intimate moments with Biden and rank-and-file lawmakers.

After Biden’s joke about “I didn’t do it” with LaMalfa, the lawmaker politely dug in to explain that many rural districts have disputes with the Forest Service. He appealed to the president on the economic side of the logging industry and also about the maintenance and sustainability of forests.

LaMalfa showed Biden a gavel that his constituents made out of wood from a 2018 fire that killed 86 across more than 150,000 acres in his district, virtually destroying the towns of Paradise and Concow.

“God love them,” Biden told LaMalfa.

After posing for a picture holding the gavel, the president didn’t take a position on LaMalfa’s requests but summoned an aide to get the lawmaker’s phone number.

Within about 12 hours, administration officials were in touch with LaMalfa’s top aides to discuss the matter.

In 2022 and 2023, LaMalfa got less time with Biden but did press him on a key local issue.

“Good to see you again, I wanted to catch up with you on the California water,” LaMalfa told Biden. He was the last lawmaker to speak with the president as he left the House after his 2023 address.

That year, the droughts had crippled some crops in the state’s agriculture hubs and there were disputes with the Agriculture Department’s insurance program. “I don’t know where the food’s going to come from,” LaMalfa told Biden.

That prompted a meeting with the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation and, while not a direct result, the lawmaker feels that those officials have reassessed the impact of some federal policy.

LaMalfa cannot say for sure whether the president even knows who he is, given how brief the interactions are and the lower profile of his policy requests.

“But it’s always a fairly positive interaction. And he gave me a decent amount of time last night. He listened, he did listen,” LaMalfa said.

On Super Tuesday, he was the only Republican on the primary ballot in his district and advanced to a general election that, if past is prologue, he will comfortably win for his seventh congressional term. Some conservative constituents have been upset upon seeing clips of their representative talking to Biden.

He said it’s the usual round of questions: “What are you doing? Wait, what are you talking about? Why are you talking to that guy?”

“Because I’m trying to get stuff done to help you,” LaMalfa said. “He’s the president of the United States.”

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