Moderate Republicans leery of Biden’s renewed call for unity
Moderate Republicans who have been in talks with the administration on a range of issues came away from President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress skeptical about his calls to revive bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.
GOP lawmakers who applauded Biden’s efforts to revive bipartisanship during his well-received inaugural address on Jan. 20 sounded pessimistic about his latest outreach on Wednesday evening.
“I was not overly inspired,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said with a sigh. “It was a long list of things that President Biden seeks to try to do his first year of his term. So I think he wanted to make sure all the ins and outs of his various plans.”
Murkowski and other Republicans were not swept away by Biden’s praise of a $568 billion Republican infrastructure spending plan, which several prominent Democrats have already criticized as inadequate.
Biden also said he was aware of ideas Republicans have floated on police reform and described the discussions on the issue as “productive.”
But it wasn’t a strong enough message to convince Republican lawmakers that Biden is going to change significantly his approach to passing his ambitious agenda, which Democrats are preparing to move through the Senate with a simple-majority vote under budget reconciliation.
“I was looking for more of an uplift and an outreach on the bipartisan note that we heard from the inauguration speech and didn’t necessarily hear that,” Murkowski said. “The things he outlined didn’t give us a lot to grab onto as Republicans.”
“We’ll see how it unfolds going forward … but it’s just hard when you have pretty expansive spending on top of spending with the only way to pay for it is to go after the issue of taxes,” she said. “I think it makes it very difficult for it to be truly bipartisan.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who attended Biden’s first official Oval Office meeting in early February with other Republicans who wanted to work with the White House on pandemic relief, focused on the mounting cost of Biden’s agenda.
“Six trillion and counting. I’m sure Bernie was happy,” he told reporters, referring to outspoken liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“He would like Republicans to vote for his plan but in terms of meeting in the middle, that hasn’t been something the administration has shown yet,” he added, citing Biden’s dismissal of a Senate Republican proposal to downsize the pandemic relief bill to $618 billion. Congress instead passed a $1.9 trillion rescue package without any Republican votes in either chamber.
Romney also issued a statement calling on Biden to “get back to the job of bipartisan governing.”
“The president says he wants unity, but it’s impossible to unify America if you’re only appealing to the liberal wing of your own party,” he said.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who has met with Democrats to explore bipartisan deals on different issues, asked whether Biden would follow up his lofty calls for bipartisan cooperation by actually making concessions to GOP lawmakers.
“I thought the parts on infrastructure and on police reform, that he wants to work together with Republicans, I thought that was positive, but we’ve heard it before,” he said.
“We heard it during the campaign, we heard it during the inaugural address and the rhetoric was not matched by action,” he added. “So you have to be cautiously optimistic.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who also met with Biden during his first official Oval Office meeting — along with Romney, Murkowski, Portman and six other GOP senators — cautioned Biden that his actions over the next several weeks and months would speak louder than his words before Congress.
“President Biden looked Americans in the eye tonight and said, ‘Let’s get to work,’ and I implore him to follow through,” she said. “For me, actions always speak louder than words. This isn’t the first time he has expressed this sentiment.
Capito noted that Biden also pledged unity during his inaugural address but then largely dismissed Republicans’ efforts to trim down the size of the COVID-19 relief package.
“Make no mistake, many of the topics President Biden discussed are ones we need to address, but raising taxes is not the right way,” she said, criticizing Biden’s call for higher taxes on corporations and people earning more than $400,000.
Biden in his address pointed out that CEOs now on average earn 320 times what their workers earn and that the nation’s 650 billionaires saw their net worth increase by $1 trillion during the pandemic.
“My fellow Americans, trickle-down economics has never worked,” he declared. “It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle out.”