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Biden is counting on Shalanda Young to cut a spending deal Republicans can live with

Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget; and Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president, leave the U.S. Capitol on May 19.
J. Scott Applewhite
Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget; and Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president, leave the U.S. Capitol on May 19.

President Biden has called his budget director the woman who controls all the money.

It's a big role, but one that generally is behind-the-scenes. Yet, Shalanda Young's work has become a lot more prominent in recent weeks.

Young is one of the small group of people, along with longtime adviser Steve Ricchetti and Legislative Affairs Director Louisa Terrell, whom Biden has asked to lead White House negotiations with Republicans to lift the debt ceiling and stop the government from veering off a financial cliff.

Biden is leaning on Young's experience negotiating on Capitol Hill to help him find a way to cut through the raw politics of Washington and find an agreement that Republicans can live with.

"We have to be in a position where we can sell it to our constituencies," Biden said during a meeting with Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. "We're pretty well divided in the House, almost down the middle, and it's not any different in the Senate. So, we got to get something that we can sell to both sides."

How she works

A 45-year-old southern Louisiana native, Young is the first African American woman to lead the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Before that she was a top aide in the House of Representatives for more than a decade, where she worked behind the scenes on epic government funding battles.

In 2019, Young was in the middle of one of those battles.

As the staff director for the House appropriations committee, she was crafting proposals and holding backroom negotiations trying to end the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

It was a challenging moment for the country, costing the U.S. economy billions of dollars. Some government spending was delayed, and hundreds of thousands of federal workers were furloughed or working without pay.

Her old boss, former Rep. Nita Lowey, who was then chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said Young was critical to helping her reach a deal that Republicans could swallow in order to reopen the government.

Armed with facts, Young would catch subtle moments during talks. She even used secret hand signals to let her boss know when things were moving in the right direction — or veering off course.

"I can remember at one point in a negotiation, she was in back of me, giving me advice," Lowey said, chuckling. "Pointing one finger at my back. Then I'd get two fingers in my back. I could always count on her."

It was that kind of experience — finding compromise even in the most toxic of environments — that's earned Young the trust of both Republicans and Democrats.

Young gets bipartisan praise

Jeff Zients, Biden's chief of staff, said Young, along with Ricchetti and Terrell, have the complete trust of the president.

"Shalanda is unflappable, steady and strategic," Zients told NPR. "She knows the ins and outs of the federal budget better than anyone on the planet and fights like hell to defend and advance the president's priorities."

It's not just Biden who has faith in her. Republicans do, too.

McCarthy has taken the time to single her out with praise, even while making partisan jabs at the president.

"Highly respect them, their knowledge," McCarthy said. "Shalanda has worked on [appropriations] ... Everybody in this place knows her, respects her greatly."

Since the beginning of the negotiations, Young has made clear that her focus is on the pragmatic.

Speaking to reporters earlier this month, she noted her years working across the aisle.

She said those members are well aware of the potential costs of a default, citing the near default in 2011 when U.S. credit was downgraded.

She also emphasized nothing will be resolved until they can get past the rancor of the politics.

"We saw the partisan process play out; now we need to pivot to a bipartisan process," she told reporters during a briefing on the debt ceiling situation. "That's the only thing that's going to make it to the president's desk and avoid default."

NPR's Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.

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Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.