Shuwanza Goff, who’s been President Biden’s liaison to Congress for less than four months, finds herself in an explosive situation this week: on the cusp of a possible government shutdown and navigating between a new House speaker, a fractious Republican caucus and Democratic lawmakers in little mood to give ground.
The stakes are high for the White House, since a shutdown could upend the economic and political landscape. For Goff, it will serve as a critical test of her role as Biden’s ambassador to a Congress that has become chaotic, with members regularly engaging in shouting matches, a speaker recently deposed and a cluster of far-right lawmakers holding outsize sway.
She faces a “baptism by fire,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who has known Goff since long before she became the first Black woman to serve as White House legislative affairs director.
Her associates, while acknowledging the challenges, say Goff has been prepared for this moment by numerous political battles of recent years. A longtime aide to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), Goff often found herself wading into heated arguments on the House floor, earning a measure of trust from lawmakers on both sides for her ability to calm the waters.
“Shuwanza and I have been through some pretty rough times on the floor,” Hoyer said in an interview. “I’ve gotten, you know, combative and uptight about what was done, and [she has] always been the one who says, ‘Steny … let’s talk to them. Let’s see if this can be worked out. … Let’s see if we can resolve this.’”
Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (N.C.), a top House Republican, gave a similar assessment.
“She knew when she could step in and turn the conversation,” McHenry said, adding that Goff could “conduct the conflict in a way that you could have some productive conversation, or break up the conflict.”
“That’s her personality,” Hoyer said. “That’s her modus operandi.”
More than a dozen current and former colleagues of Goff — lawmakers, aides and staffers on both sides of the aisle — attested in interviews to her ability to navigate legislators’ differences and strike deals without sacrificing basic principles.
That reputation elevated Goff in August to the role of the White House director of legislative affairs, the main liaison between the Biden administration and Congress. It’s a particularly important job in the administration of a president who served in the Senate for decades, prides himself on his relationships with lawmakers and sees his legislative agenda as central to his legacy.
Still, it is not clear anyone can successfully navigate today’s volatile landscape in Congress. A group of House Republicans is insisting on deep spending cuts before agreeing to any funding deal, but those reductions remain off the table for Biden and other Democrats who say they violate a budget deal negotiated with former speaker Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
“Shuwanza is not a miracle maker,” Hoyer said. “You can’t make somebody dance that doesn’t want to dance.”
The White House declined to make Goff available for an interview.
Over the weekend, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) proposed an unusual two-step spending plan in which funding for part of the government would expire on Jan. 19 and funding for the rest would elapse on Feb. 2. Some Republicans are angry that it does not include deep spending cuts, and if it cannot pass both chambers by Friday, the government will close.
Goff, 39, came to Capitol Hill in 2008 as a young aide manning the front desk of Hoyer’s congressional office. After rising through the ranks, she ended her tenure with the House in January 2021 as floor director for legislative operations under Hoyer, who was then House majority leader.
Hoyer said Goff frequently served as an intermediary during difficult moments in his negotiations with McCarthy when McCarthy was House majority leader. Goff, he said, always “focused on, ‘Hey, this is how we get it done.’”
Personally, colleagues say, Goff is warm, funny and deeply committed to those close to her — frequently driving to Richmond to visit her family, even if she can only stay for a few hours, and attending birthday parties for her friends’ children. She is also a passionate fan of the football team at her alma mater, the University of Tennessee, often discussing the team’s performance with her colleagues.
Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) recalled seeing her in action in 2021 when Congress passed a bill to fund mental health support for police after a Maryland officer’s suicide. Goff arranged for the officer’s family to visit the White House for the bill signing and for Biden to give the pen he used to the officer’s youngest son.
“Little things like that are what I really respect — someone who’s got a big, big job but still took the time to get into the details and care about people,” Trone said.
That ability to connect has helped Goff develop relationships on both sides of the aisle, despite the increasingly bitter divisions on Capitol Hill. She is one of a dwindling number who understands the political considerations of people on the other side, colleagues say, and is unusually creative in finding points where agreement may be possible.
“I think she understands the frustrations that the Republicans might have of the Democrats, and she’s also able to articulate the frustrations that the Democrats are having with Republicans,” said Matt Bravo, a former senior aide to House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.). “She knows when to put her foot down, but she also knows when she might have to give on something.”
McCarthy said he spoke to Goff regularly in September when he was House speaker, the last time Congress was nearing a shutdown. She was critical, he said, to lawmakers’ success in reaching an 11th-hour agreement that extended funding until Nov. 17.
Still, that agreement led to McCarthy’s ouster and a weeks-long crisis among Republicans struggling to find a replacement, and it remains unclear whether lawmakers will reach another spending deal this week.
And now, Goff is dealing with a new speaker.
Goff and Johnson have begun to get acquainted: He visited the White House on Oct. 26 — the day after he was elected speaker — and participated in meetings with Goff, Biden and other White House officials, including chief of staff Jeff Zients and budget director Shalanda Young.
McCarthy said he does not expect Goff’s relative lack of familiarity with Johnson to be a hindrance. “It’s more important that you know all the members and you know the structure,” he said. “We may have a different speaker, but we still have the same challenges on the Republican side.”
Goff’s relationships with many of the most influential Republicans in Congress are well-established. It was not unusual to see Goff sitting next to high-ranking members in the House chamber when she was Hoyer’s floor director, said John Stipicevic, a former senior aide to McCarthy.
“If Shuwanza gave you her caucus’s perspective on something,” Stipicevic said, “it was always accurate.”
Goff also played the critical role of walking onto the House floor during tense moments to mediate disagreements.
“She was in the center of members shouting at each other,” said a former House staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about internal dynamics. “But she was always able to look past it and not take it personally and always serve her boss’s best interest.”
In 2021, Goff — then deputy director of the White House legislative affairs office — played a central role in the passage of a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package. With much of congressional and White House staff working remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic, Goff worked the phones to keep tabs on how House members felt about the bill, Zients said in an interview.
She is deeply familiar with members of Congress in both chambers, he added. “I can turn to her and ask her about anyone, any of the 535 members, and she’ll know what is on their mind and how they’ll vote,” Zients said.
Last spring, Goff was communicating with House members when that chamber and the White House were working out a deal to raise the debt ceiling.
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), who has known Goff for years, said he would call her during these negotiations “just trying to gain perspective” when the talks hit a logjam. Those conversations, he said, helped him “better understand the mind-set of the White House in cases when we were having trouble, you know, communicating or breaking through.”
While Goff fully believes in her policy and ideological principles, Graves said, she also understands the Republican viewpoint.
“She has a really good grasp on the application of conservative principles to situations, as well, and so she truly is able to sympathize or empathize or we do things from a conservative lens, which therefore helps to identify a common denominator or perhaps a path … forward on complex or contentious issues,” Graves said. “I can’t say enough about how rare that skill is in Washington today.”
Louisa Terrell, who was Biden’s first legislative director and whom Goff served under, agreed, saying, “I think her ability to never take the bait but just keep on listening and make sure she understood where different perspectives were — I think people appreciate that she does real, authentic listening.”