Skepticism reigns as Biden, McConnell begin new era
Shortly after Joe Biden finished his inaugural speech after taking the oath of office Wednesday, he walked toward Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who was seated behind the new president on the platform, to exchange a few private words.
Lawmakers who had served with both men during Biden’s 36 years in the Senate wondered what was said and if it was a sign that the relationship with the two savvy, politically pragmatic veterans would help deliver the new era of cooperation that Biden had promised during the campaign.
“There was a moment, I hope you all caught it on the stage,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who was seated nearby. “Joe Biden walked over and spoke to Mitch McConnell after he was sworn in.”
“That’s a nice gesture,” Durbin recalled thinking.
“We’re hoping that Sen. McConnell is in a cooperative mood when it comes to the Biden administration. It would make things, particularly in the early stages, a lot easier,” he said.
Lawmakers in both parties are eyeing the Biden-McConnell relationship and wondering whether the two Washington veterans will be able to work together. Biden made unity the theme of his inaugural address, and he’s signaled he’d like to work with Republicans and avoid ending the legislative filibuster, which would allow Democrats to ram legislation through the Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris in position to cast tie-breaking votes.
Such a move would trigger a huge fight with Republicans, and McConnell is demanding that Democrat agree to leave the filibuster in place as the price of him agreeing to new organizing rules for the Senate.
So far, the signs of a meaningful working relationship between Biden and the most powerful Republican in the country have been decidedly mixed.
McConnell attended prayer services with the Biden family and other congressional leaders the morning of the inauguration, and he, Biden and Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) on Friday appeared to work out a compromise behind the scenes that will start the Senate’s second impeachment trial of former President Trump on Feb. 8.
But McConnell also has criticized a number of Biden’s first moves as president.
A worrying sign for some Democrats was McConnell’s caustic response to the first 17 executive actions Biden signed during his first day in office.
“On the Biden administration’s very first day, it took several big steps in the wrong direction,” he said on the Senate floor, bashing an order to reenter the Paris climate accord and to revoke the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of McConnell’s advisers, said it’s true the two leaders have a good relationship and know each other well.
“They go way back,” he said, noting that they served 24 years together in the Senate.
But he cautioned that personal chemistry can only go so far and that success in working together will depend heavily on how well each leader manages the expectations and demands of their own parties.
“When you’re in a leadership position like that, whether it’s president or minority leader or majority leader, you have constituencies, and I think that’s going to be the hardest thing for everybody to manage, is their various constituencies,” he said.
Some Democrats are equally skeptical.
“I’ve watched McConnell try to block everything from the day that Barack Obama was sworn in, and his latest actions indicate that nothing has changed,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a powerful liberal voice in the Democratic caucus.
Biden negotiated several deals with McConnell during the Obama era.
The most well-known produced a deal to extend most of the Bush-era tax cuts in the final days of 2012. The eleventh-hour agreement raised tax rates for the highest income bracket, extended unemployment insurance and delayed automatic spending cuts. It kept Congress from going over what lawmakers called the “fiscal cliff.”
Biden also hammered out an agreement with McConnell at the end of 2010 to extend all of the Bush tax cuts for two years, temporarily cut the Social Security tax rate by 2 percentage points, extend unemployment benefits and find middle ground on the estate tax.
At a pivotal moment in the talks, McConnell and a staff member met with Biden and his chief of staff, Ron Klain — who is now the White House chief of staff — in Biden’s office just off the Senate floor to put together the framework of that compromise.
In August of 2011, Biden and McConnell were central to crafting another compromise to raise the debt ceiling, which Congress did just in time to avoid a credit crisis that would have roiled the U.S. economy.
One former senior Obama administration official said Biden was often a “great closer” because of his relationships with McConnell.
“He knows exactly what motivates and resonates with McConnell and other senators,” the former senior official said. “There were a number of occasions when things weren’t looking so good and he’d pick up the phone and call McConnell or go to the Hill.
“No one in the building understood the Senate or McConnell better than him.”
Behind the scenes, Biden and McConnell discussed other issues during the Obama years, including a proposal to expand background checks for firearm purchases after the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.
One longtime Biden aide recalls Biden calling McConnell “a bunch of times” around the gun control debate following the shooting, which left 20 children and six staff members dead.
“They were constantly on the phone around that issue,” the aide recalled. “He was always on the phone with a lot of Republican senators particularly at that time. I specifically remember his calls sheets having McConnell’s name and others.”
“The thing about the boss is that he has deep relationships with a lot of these guys but particularly McConnell,” the aide added. “He’s known McConnell for a very long time. He doesn’t even need these calls sheets to make these calls. He’ll just pick up the phone and call. And McConnell can just call him whenever.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of McConnell’s leadership team, said McConnell and Biden aren’t chummy but that they share a desire to get Congress working again after years of dysfunction.
“Maybe it improves. I don’t think either of them would say they’re happy with” the state of bipartisan relations in Washington, he said, noting he had spoken with Biden several times over the last few weeks.
A Senate Republican aide said McConnell works well with Biden because Biden understands how the Senate works and that party leaders must be responsive to their members and constituencies. But he also suggested Biden had more success with McConnell than Obama because of how he dealt with the GOP leader.
“McConnell preferred working with Biden because Biden wouldn’t lecture him on how he is wrong,” the aide said.
McConnell has shown that he’s adept at taking the pulse of his Republican colleagues at the weekly conference and getting them to a place where they are comfortable supporting his position.
A prime example of that was on Jan. 6 when McConnell spoke first in opposition to objections to the electoral votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania, which he preceded by warning GOP colleagues weeks in advance that contesting Biden’s electoral votes would be a political mistake.
Ultimately, only six Republican senators voted to sustain an objection to Arizona’s electoral votes, while only seven backed the objection to Pennsylvania’s. It was a stark contrast with the House, where 121 Republicans voted to decertify Arizona’s electoral votes and 138 voted to throw out Pennsylvania’s.
Republicans are skeptical that Biden will have enough political juice to convince Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to support deals with McConnell that aren’t popular with liberal Democrats.
They note that Schumer is up for reelection in 2022 and that firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has not ruled out a primary challenge against the Democratic leader, although they concede the chances of her toppling one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington is slim.
Another Obama senior administration official said it is unlikely even Biden can get McConnell to move, pointing to the Obama era as proof.
In 2009, at the start of the administration, the Senate legislative affairs team had a closed door meeting with McConnell’s senior leadership.
“We fully understand and appreciate that elections have consequences,” McConnell’s chief of staff told the Obama aides, meaning they realized they were in the minority and looking to get work done.
“But they never did. It was just lip service,” the senior administration official said. “McConnell going to church with Biden earlier this week was the same. Just lip service.”
The aide recalled Biden being sent to the Hill to meet with McConnell to break the logjam on stalled executive branch nominees.
“Did he make progress? No,” the aide added.
“I anticipate it’s going to be the same this time. His base isn’t going to want reconciliation with Biden.”