Biden-McConnell cold war unlikely to end at White House

The relationship between President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has failed to live up to expectations, and lawmakers are pessimistic their first face-to-face meeting since the inauguration will thaw what has become a cold war between the two leaders.

Biden and McConnell will meet at the White House Wednesday with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). The stated topic for the first meeting of the so-called Big Four congressional leaders with the president is infrastructure.

Republicans say they’re surprised it’s taken Biden this long to invite McConnell to the White House, given the president’s promise to change Washington and unite a divided country.

“[For] the president who professed to be the president of unity and cooperation and bipartisanship and changing the tone, it’s hard to believe that he hasn’t met with the main opposition leader almost three months into the new administration,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “It’s shocking to me.”

Thune said the meeting is “probably” a photo-op that checks the box of appearing to be bipartisan, though he said, “I hope it’s meaningful.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell’s leadership team, also said he views Wednesday’s meeting probably more as a photo-op Democrats will used to claim Biden reached out to Republicans than a prelude to a bipartisan deal on a scaled-down infrastructure package.

“I think the fact that the president hasn’t met with the leaders of the House and the Senate on a bipartisan basis until now is pretty telling,” he said.

Cornyn, however, said how the meeting turns out is up to Biden and that Republicans are willing to cut a deal, although on a package costing only a fraction of what the White House has proposed.

“If he’s willing to work with us, we’re willing to work with him, but so far it’s been ‘my way or the highway,’” he added.

Biden and McConnell have only spoken twice since the Jan. 20 inauguration, aides note. Biden called McConnell in late March to talk about infrastructure, and the two leaders spoke in February about the situation in Myanmar.

Biden appeared to offer the GOP leader a small olive branch during his first speech to a joint session of Congress when he thanked McConnell for calling for the 21st Century Cures Act to be named after the president’s late son Beau, who died of cancer in 2015.

“I’ll never forget you standing, Mitch, and saying, naming it after my deceased son,” Biden said. “It meant a lot.”

Lawmakers and aides say Wednesday’s meeting will give the president and McConnell an opportunity to lay out their competing visions for infrastructure spending and to argue to swing voters next year that they made a good-faith effort to reach a bipartisan compromise.

So far, Biden and McConnell are far apart in their visions for an infrastructure package. Biden’s two framework proposals would cost $4 trillion, while McConnell says not a single Republican senator would support spending that much. He instead says he could support a bill in the range of $600 billion to $800 billion.

Senators in both parties are characterizing Wednesday’s meeting as a courtesy call that is unlikely to produce any real momentum for a bipartisan infrastructure deal.

“Based on McConnell’s track record, I’m very doubtful,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Monday afternoon.

Moments later, Durbin went to the floor to highlight McConnell’s statement from last week that “100 percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration.”

“This 100 percent stopping the Biden administration from Sen. McConnell cannot be the basis for a successful congressional session,” he said.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said she hopes “something will come out of these meetings,” referring to Biden’s plan to meet with GOP leaders and also with the top-ranking Republican senators on six key committees Thursday.

But she also has serious doubts.

She said Democrats want to have bipartisan support for Biden’s agenda but added, “I don’t see that many signs of Mitch McConnell wanting to do that.”

She noted that despite a lot of talk early in the year that Biden and McConnell would be able to build on the trust they established during the Obama administration when they put together a couple of deals to keep tax cuts from expiring, McConnell right now appears more focused on blocking Biden’s agenda.

“I look at the behavior and, frankly, the fact that they couldn’t even see their way to supporting the rescue plan, which was really important — very important to get our economy going — and you have Mitch McConnell saying that he’s going to do everything to stop this administration, I think he pretty much lives up to what he’s saying,” Hirono added.

A senior Republican aide said the meeting is largely “symbolic” and that McConnell will argue that a package of $600 billion to $800 billion is more than adequate to revamping the nation’s infrastructure and will point to it in the future as evidence that he was willing to work with the new president.

During the 2020 campaign, Biden touted his ability to work with Republicans and pledged to unify the country, which fueled heady expectations at the start of the year that he would be able to reach out to McConnell to set a new tone in Washington. Biden and McConnell famously cut a deal to temporarily extend almost all of the Bush-era tax cuts in December of 2010 and then struck another deal in late 2012 to extend 98 percent of the George W. Bush tax cuts.

A complicating factor for McConnell is that he has become a prime target of former President Trump, who has called on Senate Republicans to replace him as leader. Any deal he strikes with Biden on infrastructure is sure to come under attack from the former president.

“I have low expectations that they will be able to reach an agreement given the positions each of them have staked out,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at Brookings Institution.

West added that McConnell’s contentious relationship with Trump “does make it more difficult to reach an agreement.”

“Any agreement that comes out Trump will immediately attack as a sellout, but McConnell knows that and I think he’s going to make his own decisions and work with Biden where he can, oppose him on many other issues,” he said. 

Tags Charles Schumer Coronavirus COVID-19 Dick Durbin Donald Trump Infrastructure Joe Biden John Cornyn John Thune Kevin McCarthy Mazie Hirono Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi
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