Biden brings back bipartisan meetings at the White House

President Biden has brought back bipartisan meetings at the White House that diminished under his predecessor, trying to find common ground with Republicans even as they remain far apart on issues related to the next round of coronavirus relief. 

Biden’s first meeting with lawmakers in the Oval Office was with Republican senators on the coronavirus proposal and he has since met with bipartisan members of Congress on infrastructure and, later, supply chain issues. Biden’s outreach to Republicans has also extended beyond Capitol Hill to governors and local leaders as his administration grapples with the coronavirus and recent winter storms in southern states. 

The meetings are another example of a return to more traditional governing under Biden and he is expected to make them a regular occurrence. 

White House spokesman Michael Gwin said that the president is “glad to welcome lawmakers from both parties to the White House to work towards finding common ground on the challenges we face, and he’ll continue to do so throughout his time in office.”

“Biden’s brand is bringing people together, so it’s always helpful for him to remind voters that he’s trying to unite,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “For now, it helps him stay above the fray.” 

While Biden is making an effort to reach across the aisle, the real test will be whether that engagement yields any results. Discussions with Republicans on COVID-19 relief have brought both sides no closer to a compromise. Democrats have pushed ahead to pass Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal using budget reconciliation, creating tensions with Republicans. 

“There are clearly issues where there is bipartisan consensus, but it requires presidential leadership and political capital to prevent the far left or far right from stopping it,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former spokesman in George W. Bush’s White House. 

Biden’s effort to work across the aisle is reflective of his campaign trail pledge to be a unifier and a “president for all Americans.” 

“He’s said he wants Republicans at the table from the very beginning,” said one longtime Biden adviser. “You can’t campaign on that for a year and a half and then not do it.”

The adviser said Biden’s aim has always been to tone down the rhetoric and “break the fever.”

“Making them the opposition and not the enemy, that’s part of the deal,” the adviser said. “Part of the goal is normalizing talking to them. That is also a message that he’s sending not just to Republicans, but to Democrats, as well. 

“He’s not under the illusion that we’ll get 67 votes, but this is how policymaking works,” the adviser continued, adding that Biden is a “creature of the Senate.”

Biden has forecast plans to pass a recovery and infrastructure package and Democrats have also introduced an immigration proposal on Capitol Hill, presenting his next tests to work with Republicans. Biden would need Republicans to join Democrats in order to pass an immigration overhaul.

In addition to Biden’s contacts, the White House says officials remain in constant contact with Republican offices on Capitol Hill and in the states.

Former President Obama also tried to reach out to Republicans in the initial months of his presidency; he met with bipartisan House and Senate leadership on his first day in Washington in January 2009, before being inaugurated, to discuss the economic recovery. 

“President Obama wanted to do everything he could to reach out to congressional Republicans,” said Phil Schiliro, who served as Obama’s director of legislative affairs.“If there were no receptivity, he didn’t want the lack of interest to prevent us from moving forward.”  

The Obama outreach initially included several small bipartisan social events, including a gathering for the Super Bowl and a couple of cocktail parties at the White House. But those ended shortly after they began because Obama found them to be largely unsuccessful in helping his legislative agenda. 

“He hated them,” one former senior administration official said. 

He did continue to have occasional meetings with bipartisan groups “only when issues required it [and] not for the sake of bipartisan comity,” another former official said, pointing to meetings on government funding and the Iran nuclear agreement.

Biden has drawn contrasts with former President Trump, who campaigned on an outsider persona and not on an ability or willingness to work across the aisle. While there were some moments of bipartisanship during the Trump era, such as the passage of the First Step Act, they were fleeting and drowned out by constant friction between the then-president and Democrats. 

“From the moment Trump won, Democrats were committed to defeating him four years later. The Democratic base had no interest in working with Trump,” said Conant. “Trump never presented himself as a president for all Americans. If you didn’t support Trump, he viewed you as the opposition from Day One.”

Trump did hold some meetings with bipartisan leaders at the White House, but they dropped off at the end of 2019 as House Democrats began impeachment proceedings. Trump’s final meeting with bipartisan congressional leadership took place in October 2019 regarding Syria. The meeting ended with Democrats storming out and both sides hurling insults, and Trump never spoke with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) after that encounter. 

Still, all five emergency funding coronavirus bills passed by the Democrat-controlled House and GOP-controlled Senate last year were bipartisan, though Trump played little role in the negotiations and even momentarily threatened the fate of the final legislation passed in December. Instead, it was then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin who spearheaded discussions with Pelosi on coronavirus relief. 

Conant described the lack of bipartisan support for Biden’s coronavirus relief package as an “ominous start,” and said that the White House would likely want and need Republican support to pass major immigration and infrastructure policy.  

“I think Biden is well positioned to do that if he is willing to break with the far left at times,” Conant said. “You can’t expect bipartisanship if you’re not willing to give something to the other side.”

Democrats currently hold only narrow majorities in Congress, with Vice President Harris casting a tie-breaking vote in the 50-50 Senate when needed. The fight over Biden’s nomination of Neera Tanden for the Office of Management and Budget, which Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) opposes, also underscores the work the president needs to do to keep his own party together while also trying to work across the aisle. 

Biden’s first meeting with GOP senators on Feb. 1 was cordial, according to participants, but Biden has remained committed to his $1.9 trillion relief proposal, which Republicans view as too expensive. 

Biden’s outreach continued as he met with a bipartisan group of senators on Feb. 11 about infrastructure and, this week, with 11 lawmakers, including six Republicans, about addressing vulnerabilities in supply chains. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas.), who met with Biden on a trip to storm-stricken Texas on Friday, described the meeting as “very positive.”

“The political process has its ups and downs, and I’m hoping that this is an opportunity for us to do something truly important in a bipartisan way,” said Cornyn. “So far, the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill is being passed strictly along party lines. I think that’s unfortunate.” 

Tags Biden bipartisan Bipartisanship coronavirus relief Donald Trump Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Cornyn Nancy Pelosi Neera Tanden Steven Mnuchin

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