Partisan divides widen in Biden’s first 100 days

President Joe Biden walks to the White House
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When President Biden addresses a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, he will do so having failed to act on one of his biggest campaign promises: to unify the country and reach across party lines. 

Instead, Biden will visit Congress and speak to a country seemingly just as divided as it was during last year’s presidential campaign and the polarizing months that followed.

Biden has yet to reach a compromise with Republicans on any legislative action, including the COVID-19 relief bill, which passed earlier this year with no GOP votes after Republicans offered a bill less than a third the size of the one favored by the White House.

There are some signs that Biden and Republicans may be able to strike a deal on infrastructure or police reform. But there is plenty of skepticism, too.

“Biden was seen as the re-unifier, someone who could bring the country back together. To some extent that’s stock rhetoric, but it wasn’t stock rhetoric to Biden,” said William Galston, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a policy adviser in former President Clinton’s White House. “It turns out that as of now, the partisan divisions under Biden are more pronounced than they have ever been.”

In the lead up to Biden’s address this week, Republicans have been calling the president out, seizing on what they say is an unwillingness to reach across the aisle. 

“If I look at the 100 days, it’s more like a bait and switch,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said on “Fox News Sunday.” “The bait was he was going to govern as bipartisan, but the switch is he’s governed as a socialist.” 

The White House and Democrats reject such assertions and blame Republicans for the lack of cooperation so far. The GOP remains badly divided in the post-Trump era, with battles over the former president tearing at the party.

Biden hasn’t given up on getting deals with the GOP.

In his speech on Wednesday night, which falls a day before his 100th day in office, Biden will emphasize his willingness to work with Republicans, though he’ll also repeat his administration’s argument that backing ideas with bipartisan support counts as bipartisanship.

“Bipartisanship doesn’t just happen in Washington,” said one longtime Biden adviser. “This doesn’t mean he’ll stop trying to work with Republicans in Washington. The White House is talking to Republicans every day. But not every Republican is in the Senate.” 

Moderate Republicans say they are open to working with Biden. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who took the lead in trying to reach a deal with the president on a scaled-down COVID-19 relief package earlier this year, said she wants Biden to recommit himself to working with the GOP.

“I want to hear him outline clearly a commitment to bipartisanship in pursuing the remainder of his agenda,” she said. “I really liked his inaugural speech but thus far the administration has gone in a different direction and I want to see him pledge to be the unifier that he promised us he would be and outline specific steps on how he plans to accomplish that.”

Collins was one of 10 Republican senators who met with Biden on Feb. 1 to discuss the COVID-19 relief bill.

The senior moderate Republican senator later said she was encouraged by that meeting but felt Biden’s desire to work with GOP lawmakers was undercut by White House chief of staff Ron Klain and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who is now leading a similar effort to strike a compromise with Biden on a more targeted infrastructure spending package, says she wants Biden to be more specific about how far he is willing to go.

Capito noted that Biden has “said a lot on bipartisanship” but his administration hasn’t followed it up by working closely with GOP senators to produce legislation that can attract strong bipartisan support.

“Give me some specificity in this area of infrastructure if you’re really willing to look” at a Republican proposal, she said.

“I’m sure he’ll talk about bipartisanship,” she said, but added it would be interesting to see if “he does it in a specific manner” and details “where he thinks we have our best opportunities.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), one of Biden’s closest allies, said he expects Biden to talk about the importance of bipartisanship but he also anticipates the president will challenge the Republican critique that he hasn’t made a real effort to work across the aisle.

“I’ve seen him over and over put in the time, do the outreach, do the work. So yes, I would welcome a recognition of the importance of bipartisanship to pursuing meaningful solutions on everything from immigration to climate, but I also frankly expect him to challenge my Republican colleagues to come forward with concrete and enactable ideas,” he said.

He also noted that Democratic lawmakers don’t want a repeat of former President Obama’s unsuccessful efforts to reach a deal with Republicans on healthcare. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the toughest Democratic swing vote that Biden has to nail down in the Senate, said he expects Biden to revive the topic of infrastructure on Wednesday night, despite repeated Republican attacks on his $2.25 trillion infrastructure proposal.

“I think it will be a good speech,” he said, adding that he wants Biden to pledge “we’re going to do something bipartisan.”

“It’s about time we do something bipartisan,” he added.

Asked if Biden would make such a pledge after the partisan battle over COVID-19 relief, Manchin said: “I think he will. That’s in his heart and soul.” 

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Charles Schumer Chris Coons Coronavirus COVID-19 relief Filibuster Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kevin McCarthy Ron Klain Shelley Moore Capito Susan Collins
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