Biden fails to break GOP ‘fever’
When he was campaigning for president, Joe Biden constantly talked up his relationships on Capitol Hill and even angered members of his own party when he spoke about his ability to work with Republicans.
He even bragged about being able to work with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
But since entering office in January, his efforts to work with Republicans — and even more moderate lawmakers in his own party like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — have been largely unsuccessful.
Now, as a bipartisan group of 10 senators talks up a deal on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, all eyes are on Biden to see if he can actually move something with the GOP over the finish line.
Behind the scenes, Democrats are broadly content with the way Biden has handled negotiations to this point. But they worry about how much success he will have in the coming months.
“Yes, the Republicans are obstructionists, but I think so much of Biden’s legacy in the White House is tied to whether or not he can strike these kinds of deals,” one Democratic strategist said. “This was the basis of his campaign: to move Washington along again.”
Biden has acknowledged his own skepticism about what it’s going to take to reach consensus with those across the aisle.
“I don’t understand the Republicans,” he told reporters last month, reacting to what he called a “mini-revolution” around the ousting of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from House leadership.
Biden has faced pressure from inside his own party, too. Progressive Democrats have grown increasingly impatient with the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations, urging Biden to cut them off and pursue a deal through budget reconciliation.
Last week, talks between the White House and a group of GOP senators led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) collapsed after weeks of back-and-forth talks failed to yield compromise.
Some Democrats argue that Republicans are not negotiating in good faith, pointing to comments McConnell made in May about “100 percent” of his focus being on “standing up” to the Biden administration.
“I think the Republicans have never been serious, and you only need to look at their words to know that’s true,” said Zac Petkanas, a Democratic strategist and senior adviser to Invest in America, a group advocating for a robust infrastructure package.
“I think [Biden] would like to believe that there are 10 Senate Republicans that just want to create some damn jobs, and so he is exhausting every possible avenue to try to get that done. However, there has just been zero evidence that he is being met with the same eagerness to craft a meaningful bipartisan deal that meets the urgency of the moment,” said Petkanas, a former aide to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Democrats and Republicans have also failed to find common ground on major issues like policing reform, gun control and immigration. Biden has been spending less political capital on those issues.
There was a moment of Senate bipartisanship last week in a 68-32 vote on sweeping legislation spearheaded by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to help U.S. companies compete with China.
“This legislation addresses key elements that were included in my American Jobs Plan, and I am encouraged by this bipartisan effort to advance those elements separately through this bill,” Biden said in a statement on the bill’s passage. “I look forward to working with the House of Representatives on this important bipartisan legislation, and I look forward to signing it into law as soon as possible.”
Before becoming president, Biden would often talk about the so-called fever breaking among Republicans, which he believed would then lead to bipartisan compromise. He predicted time and again that after former President Trump left office, Republicans would have more breathing room.
“With Donald Trump out of the White House — not a joke— you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends,” Biden said on the campaign trail in New Hampshire.
Before taking office, he predicted on a conference call with allies: “I may eat these words, but … as Donald Trump’s shadow fades away, you’re going to see an awful lot change.”
On his first big legislative triumph, Biden gave up quickly on the GOP, moving to pass his $1.9 trillion coronavirus plan through the Senate using budget reconciliation, a process that allowed Democrats to sidestep a filibuster.
Polls show that the bill is largely popular, which Democrats say gives Biden an edge. Back in May, Biden called out Republicans who he claimed have been “bragging” about the coronavirus rescue plan despite not voting for it.
“I mean, some people have no shame,” he said during a speech in Cleveland.
Since taking office, Democrats say Biden has made good-faith efforts in trying to compromise with Republicans. Some argue that voters will credit Biden for making an effort to be bipartisan even if Democrats have to use reconciliation again.
“President Biden, with his very large megaphone, will get credit in the eyes of American voters for trying to be bipartisan,” said Michael Trujillo, a Democratic strategist. “The effort helps give cover to moderate senators and House members so that way ultimately if one party needs to vote on something to get it on the president’s desk, Americans know there was an honest, good faith effort to reach a compromise.”
A Harvard CAPS-Harris poll out late last month showed that 62 percent of those surveyed said they either strongly or somewhat approve of Biden, while 38 percent said they disapprove.
Democrats for the most part don’t fault Biden for reaching out to Republicans, though they are skeptical he will be successful. And there are worries that a push for bipartisan measures risks wasting time and preventing Democrats from focusing on using budget reconciliation again to get another major package through the Senate.
“I’m very confident that he and his team, given half a chance, would cut a lot of deals with Republicans, but they’ve figured out very quickly there are no deals to be had with Mitch McConnell and they’ve adjusted accordingly,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who once worked as an aide to former Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Manley predicted that much of Biden’s agenda “is going to die a slow and painful death in the Senate.”
As a result, Biden “is going to have to figure out what he can do in Congress while pushing the other levers available to him,” including executive action.