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GOP says Ron Klain pulling Biden strings

Republicans are attacking White House chief of staff Ron KlainRon KlainManchin throws cold water on using budget reconciliation Will Ocasio-Cortez challenge Biden or Harris in 2024? White House says bills are bipartisan even if GOP doesn't vote for them MORE as “the guy behind the curtain” and “Prime Minister Klain” as they try to push back on someone they see as formidable opponent in the battle over President BidenJoe BidenBiden eyes bigger US role in global vaccination efforts Trump says GOP will take White House in 2024 in prepared speech Kemp: Pulling All-Star game out of Atlanta will hurt business owners of color MORE’s agenda.

The GOP blames Klain for Biden’s refusal to negotiate the price down on his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, an approach they say conflicts with Biden’s campaign pledges.

“We’ve gotten the impression from our members that have been in meetings down there that he’s kind of the guy behind the curtain,” said Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSunday shows preview: Democrats eye two-part infrastructure push; Michigan coronavirus cases surge Schumer kicks into reelection mode The Hill's Morning Report - Biden shifts on filibuster MORE (S.D.).

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Aides to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' Democrats see opportunity in GOP feud with business Biden resists calls to give hard-hit states more vaccines than others MORE (R-Ky.) have taken to describing the White House chief of staff as “Prime Minister Klain,” an effort aimed at hurting Biden.

A Republican aide said the point of focusing on Klain is to undercut public perception of Biden as a leader who is totally with it.

“It plays into the theme of Biden’s not really running the show here,” said the aide. “It plays into the theme is he’s the figurehead and jovial and needs permission from this unelected guy to make any decision.”

The aide acknowledged that Biden has a high approval rating and that the public has embraced the president’s personality, but said there’s an opening for Republicans to argue “he’s not really running the show over there, whether it’s Ron Klain or [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader Charles] Schumer” who’s really in charge.

The other prong of the GOP strategy is to put pressure on Klain to back off and perhaps give Biden more incentive to negotiate with Republicans in Congress and show what they would characterize as greater independence.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start Moderate GOP senators and Biden clash at start of infrastructure debate MORE (R-Maine), who led a group of 10 GOP senators who met with Biden at the White House earlier this month, says Biden is being penned in by Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Klain. Republicans also say Pelosi (D-Calif.) is pushing Biden to the left.

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“The problem is that what appear to be productive talks seem to be countermanded by the Democratic leader in the Senate,” Collins told reporters.

She said Klain tried to undercut any progress Biden and GOP senators might have made at a White House meeting with GOP senators on Feb. 1.

“Ron was shaking his head in the back of the room, the whole time, which is not exactly an encouraging sign,” she said.

McConnell himself on Thursday emphasized Klain’s characterization of the Democrats’ COVID-19 relief package as the most progressive legislation in a generation to suggest the president is being moved to the left.

“The president has chosen a very progressive beginning. His chief of staff, on MSNBC yesterday, said with regard to the COVID package, the most progressive legislation in a generation,” the GOP leader said. “The president has decided not to be a centrist.”

But one ally close to the White House blasted the Republicans' response.

"This is the political equivalent of frightfully screaming, 'the dog ate my homework,''' said one ally close to the White House. "The reality is they've made a major unforced error in opposing a rescue plan that the president repeatedly invited them to be a part of and that the majority of both economists and Republican voters themselves support."

Other Biden allies call the attacks on Klain silly, particularly the suggestion it is he and not Biden who is in charge. They say Republicans are covering up for their own unwillingness to meet Biden halfway on COVID-19 relief and other Democratic priorities with broad popular support.

“God love Ron Klain, but Joe Biden does what Joe Biden wants to do,” one adviser said. “He certainly takes the advice and processes it. Ron is one of the best advisers the president has, but he knows what he has to do.” 

Klain is seen as one of the most powerful White House chiefs of staff in recent memory and has a tight bond with Biden thanks to their long history together.  

He served as chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1989 to 1992, when Biden was chairman of the committee, and later served as Biden’s vice presidential chief of staff from 2009 to 2011. Klain also assisted Biden’s speechwriters during his 1988 presidential campaign.

Thune said Republicans who have met with Biden “believe the president truly does want to work with Republicans and tends to want to govern in a way that would be a little more consultative or cooperative, in the middle, but his staff is driving him hard left.”

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“I hope they correct that and that the president asserts his authority in the situation because otherwise it’s going to be hard to get any kind of legislative accomplishments that require cooperation with Republicans,” he said.

Klain has come under media scrutiny for playing a big role in the nomination of Neera TandenNeera TandenFive ways an obscure Senate ruling could change Washington 2024 GOP White House hopefuls lead opposition to Biden Cabinet White House delays release of budget plan MORE as budget chief.

The Washington Post on Thursday reported, citing four senior Democratic officials, that Klain was “an ally” of Tanden’s and “a key advocate who recommended her” nomination despite a history of sharp tweets aimed at not only Republicans but some progressives in the Senate.

It’s unclear whether Tanden has 50 votes in the Senate with centrist Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinClose the avenues of foreign meddling Democrats see political winner in tax fight MSNBC's Joy Reid pans Manchin, Sinema as the 'no progress caucus' MORE (D-W.Va.) opposed to her nomination.

Klain told MSNBC’s Joy Reid on Wednesday that “we’re fighting our guts out” to get her confirmed.

A Democratic strategist close to the White House told The Hill that it's clear in the case of Tanden that Klain “is doing what he can to get this done.”

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“I think he's Neera's No. 1 fan in the building, there's no question about it,” the strategist said. “The fact that she's still in contention is 100 percent because of Ron.”

Klain said Wednesday he would find another spot for Tanden to serve in the administration if she can’t get through the Senate but, even so, declared: “We’re going to get Neera Tanden confirmed.”

Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsFive takeaways from Biden's first budget proposal The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start MORE (D-Del.), one of Biden’s closest Senate allies, said Biden made it clear at this month’s meeting with GOP lawmakers that he’s the ultimate decisionmaker.

“Joe Biden is president of the United States and Ron is a very capable, very able chief of staff who has known and worked closely with President Biden for decades,” he said. “It’s important to respect the fact that it was President Biden who said ‘I want to meet in person with 10 Republican senators’ right off the bat.' "

“What was scheduled for an hour went for two, and several of my Republican colleagues said [Biden] knew their numbers better than they did,” he said. “I disagree with and I’m going to keep pushing back on this narrative that somehow Joe Biden isn’t really the president, isn’t really in charge and other people are.”

--Updated at 2:45 p.m.