Biden meets for first time with ‘Big Four’ congressional leaders

President Biden hosted the “Big Four” congressional leaders for the first time at the White House on Wednesday in hopes of finding areas of common agreement amid high partisan tensions in Washington. 

The meeting comes more than 100 days after Biden was sworn in as president. The group was expected to discuss Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal, among other topics, though members of both parties were skeptical that the two sides would have much of a breakthrough.

“When I ran, I said I wasn’t going to be a Democratic president, I was going to be a president for all Americans,” Biden told reporters who were allowed into the meeting for a brief two minutes. “The bottom line here is we’re going to see whether we can reach some consensus on a compromise. … We’re going to talk a lot about infrastructure today.”

Asked by a reporter how he would do that, Biden quipped it would be “easy.”

“Snap my fingers, it will happen,” Biden joked.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sat on one couch opposite House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). All four leaders were masked, as were Biden and Vice President Harris.

The meeting, which concluded after one hour and 45 minutes, was highly anticipated, particularly given the internal strife in the House Republican Conference surrounding the discussion. But McConnell and McCarthy have both made clear they are unlikely to get behind Biden’s agenda, casting doubt on the prospect of significant progress coming out of Wednesday’s meeting.

In fact, Biden has spent significantly more time courting rank-and-file Republicans to back his agenda. He will host Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and several of her GOP colleagues on Thursday for talks on an infrastructure deal, and he met individually with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), two moderates, earlier this week.

Still, Wednesday’s discussion on its face appeared more cordial than similar bipartisan meetings under former President Trump, who openly sparred with Democrats over border wall funding during a December 2018 meeting and stopped inviting top Democrats to the White House after a blow up with Pelosi caused her to storm out of a meeting on the Syrian conflict in October 2019.

McCarthy and McConnell, speaking to reporters at the White House after the meeting, indicated the talks were productive, even if there was no breakthrough. The Republican leaders indicated there is still a gap between the two sides on how to pay for the proposal and what exactly should be in it, however, making it unclear where there is room for compromise.

“I think there’s an opportunity that we can work together on infrastructure,” McCarthy said. “Now, let me preface that we’re not interested — as long as it’s not anything about tax increases, and in dealing with infrastructure that we start with the concept of what is the definition [of infrastructure].”

The meeting took place just hours after McCarthy presided over a vote to remove Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from her leadership role in the House Republican Conference over her repeated criticisms of Trump and his lies about the 2020 election.

Biden has spoken sparingly with McCarthy since taking office. The House minority leader voted to reject Electoral College votes on Jan. 6 even after rioters stormed the Capitol, and there has been little attempt by the two leaders to form a working relationship.

Asked if he could trust and work with McCarthy given his support for Cheney’s ouster and alignment with Trump, Biden laughed and appeared to say “yes.”

“The president is no stranger to working with people who he disagrees with or he has massive fundamental disagreements with,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a briefing when asked later how Biden could work with McCarthy. 

“What the president believes his role is is to lead by example and to offer an alternative of leadership to the American people which is reaching his hand across the aisle, offering to work with members of both parties on addressing issues the American people have concerns about,” Psaki said.

McCarthy at the White House claimed nobody was questioning the legitimacy of Biden’s election, even as Trump does so regularly and publicly. Asked if he felt the intra-party squabble threatened his place as leader of the House caucus, McCarthy said he was “looking forward to being Speaker in the next Congress.”

Biden last week weighed in on the drama surrounding Cheney, saying he did not understand the Republicans in Congress.

Biden and McConnell have a much longer history, having served together in the Senate and dealt with one another when Biden was vice president during the Obama administration. 

However, their relationship has strained since Biden took office and the two have spoken infrequently. Democrats have hammered McConnell for saying recently that he was focused on “stopping” Biden’s agenda, a remark he later walked back slightly by saying he wants to “do business” with Biden but that the president needs to be “moderate.”

Psaki said this week Biden is still hoping to see “progress” on an infrastructure deal by Memorial Day, though she did not specify what progress would look like. Biden in March proposed a $2.3 trillion package to invest in roads, bridges, broadband, climate-friendly industries and long-term care workers.

If Biden does not ultimately cut a deal with Republicans on infrastructure, he would need to get every Senate Democrat behind his plan in order to pass it using budget reconciliation.

Updated at 1:14 p.m.

Tags Charles Schumer Coronavirus Donald Trump Infrastructure Jen Psaki Jobs Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kevin McCarthy Kyrsten Sinema Liz Cheney Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Shelley Moore Capito Unemployment

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