Biden’s relationship with top House Republican is frosty

President Biden will sit down with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Wednesday for the first time since taking office, marking an opportunity for progress in what has been a frosty relationship so far.

McCarthy’s refusal to recognize Biden as president-elect in the weeks that followed the 2020 election, his vote to reject the certification of electoral results declaring Biden the winner of certain states and his unwillingness to distance himself from former President Trump in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot have put an early strain on any potential collaboration between the House GOP leader and the president.

Biden has a long relationship with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), brokering deals with the Senate Republican leader when Biden served as former President Obama’s vice president. He’s continued to talk with McConnell since becoming president, and the two are known to have a cordial relationship.

But there appears to be little relationship between Biden and McCarthy, the most powerful Republican in the lower chamber of Congress.

The distinction is noteworthy because of the different places McCarthy and McConnell hold within the larger Republican Party — and the clearly different relationship they have with the president.

McConnell is the GOP veteran, having served in the Senate for more than three decades. McConnell and Biden were Senate colleagues for about a quarter-century, meaning they had plenty of time to get to know each other before Biden became vice president.

The Senate GOP leader is also an institutionalist whose time at the top of his caucus precedes the Trump era. McConnell has a difficult relationship with Trump, whom he harshly criticized for his actions leading up to the Jan. 6 riot.

McCarthy, in contrast, is a Trump ally who rose to leader of the GOP conference after the retirement of former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). McCarthy has tied his sail to Trump, even voting to overturn results of the Electoral College after the riot.

It’s unclear if those differences have anything to do with the lack of contact between Biden and McCarthy, and the White House shrugged off the idea that there’s any significance to the fact the two men have yet to speak or meet in the six months since Biden’s election.

“Do you think tens of millions of people are concerned about him not meeting with Kevin McCarthy?” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week when a reporter suggested the lack of a meeting between the two men undermined Biden’s efforts to unify the country.

When Psaki was asked in February why Biden wasn’t engaging directly with McCarthy, she replied that senior White House officials were in touch with the leader’s team before reiterating that Biden would speak “with a range of Democrats and Republicans.”

The White House has given mixed signals about its desire to work with Republicans in either chamber, and the different natures of the House and Senate naturally lead to less work with the House GOP. House Democrats can push legislation through with their slim majority, while Senate Democrats generally need 10 GOP votes to get past a filibuster.

Still, there’s a fairly decent chance McCarthy will be the Speaker by January 2023, given Democrats’ fragile majority and the nation’s history of midterm elections, where the president’s party almost always loses seats.

If that happens, McCarthy will become the most powerful Republican in the country — with the possible exception of Trump. He could be a thorn in Biden’s side on routine Washington business like keeping the government open and raising the debt ceiling.

Officials on both sides of the relationship say Wednesday’s meeting will be an important step in showing the two can get along moving forward. Administration officials view the sit-down, which will include McConnell, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), as a barometer for how Biden and McCarthy might be able to move forward.

Current and former Biden advisers said the ball is in McCarthy’s court to show he is willing to be a working partner with the administration at a time when the Republican Party is fighting its own battles.

And Biden himself suggested this week he views the House GOP as being in a sort of disarray.

“Look, it seems as though the Republican Party is trying to identify what it stands for. And they’re in the midst of a significant sort of mini-revolution going on in the Republican Party,” Biden told reporters on Thursday when asked to elaborate on his comments that he did not understand the House GOP efforts to force Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) out of her leadership role.

Biden has preached unity dating back to his campaign. He fist-bumped Cheney before his address to a joint session of Congress last month and exchanged words with Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.) after. He will welcome Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and colleagues of her choosing this week to talk infrastructure in hopes of reaching a bipartisan deal.

That outreach, and efforts to highlight the support of Republican voters for the president’s agenda, has lessened the need for Biden to work side-by-side with McCarthy in the meantime, officials say. But should McCarthy take the Speaker’s gavel in 2023, the president will need to develop a rapport with the California Republican.

McCarthy first requested a meeting with Biden in a March 5 letter to discuss the surge of migrants crossing the southern border and highlight the lack of communication from the president. But for weeks, the GOP leader received no response from the White House, a subject that McCarthy bitterly complained about on several occasions.

“A number of times I’ve requested the meetings, [Biden] never even acknowledged them,” McCarthy told reporters last month.

In the House, McCarthy and Pelosi, who hail from the same state, are constantly taking shots at one another, something that could contribute to the White House’s hands-off approach to the House GOP. 

“McCarthy has failed to articulate any agenda whatsoever, led his conference to unanimously oppose the widely popular American Rescue Plan while bungling the messaging and is now leading the charge to replace the only woman in leadership with a Trump sycophant,” a senior Democratic aide said. “McCarthy has always been motivated solely by his own political ambition and has zero interest in addressing the needs of working Americans. He’s just not a serious leader.”

The aide’s remarks referenced the intraparty rift with Cheney that has threatened to divide parts of McCarthy’s  caucus. 

McCarthy last week appeared to join the growing calls from rank-and-file members for Cheney to face another vote on whether she should remain as GOP conference chair. He was reportedly caught on a hot mic before a Fox News interview saying he’d “lost confidence” in Cheney,” who has remained critical of Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent.

Many House Republicans have maintained their loyalty to Trump despite the former president inciting violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6. McCarthy, who said Trump deserved some of the blame for the riot that day, has since worked his way back into the former president’s good graces, meeting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago earlier this year and speaking with him on the phone in recent weeks.

With the House Republican Conference appearing to turn on members who speak out against the former president like Cheney or Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), McCarthy’s path to the speakership may require him to hew closer to Trump than to any nods toward bipartisan with Biden in the intervening 18 months. That calculus, sources said, could dictate how Wednesday’s meeting plays out.

“It’s going to be like Boehner redux,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP fundraiser who referenced how former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) lost standing within his own caucus for attempting to cut deals with then-President Obama. “Every inch he takes closer to Biden is going to cost him enormously.”

Scott Wong contributed.

Tags 2020 election Adam Kinzinger Barack Obama Boehner Capitol breach Charles Schumer Donald Trump Electoral College Jen Psaki Joe Biden John Boehner Kevin McCarthy Liz Cheney Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Paul Ryan

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