Senate GOP vows to rein in Biden if they win majority

Senate Republicans are vowing to push President Biden toward the center if they win back the majority in November, setting the stage for possible high-profile clashes next year. 

Republicans are feeling optimistic about their chances in November as Biden has struggled to get a boost in the polls, even as Senate Republicans navigate primary election landmines of their own. 

The GOP message is an early warning sign of the potential gridlock, and headaches, Biden could face in the second half of his term, particularly if Democrats lose both the House and Senate. 

“If Joe Biden is confronted with a Republican majority in both chambers, I’ve always thought that the onus is really on him. Because it will be a test of just how pragmatic and transactional he can be. … So, I think the test is really on him,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told The Hill. 

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, pointed to energy and “Big Tech” as two areas of potential common interest but said it would “depend largely” on the White House. 

“If we were to get the majority back … I think he’s going to have to move to the middle,” Thune told The Hill. 

The pledge to be a check on Biden comes as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wants to make the election a referendum on Democratic control of Washington and keep the focus off GOP fault lines that persist in the wake of the 2020 election. 

McConnell has repeatedly declined to delve deeply into what the Senate GOP agenda would be if he finds himself back in the majority next year, though during a recent Axios NewsShapers interview McConnell pointed generally at a handful of issues — inflation, the border, crime and domestic energy production — where there would likely be sharp divisions with the administration.

McConnell and Senate Republicans are similarly refusing to say if a GOP majority would take up a Supreme Court nominee if a vacancy occurs in 2023. Refusing to do so would be a significant escalation of heated judiciary wars. 

The GOP leader told reporters recently that if Republicans controlled the Senate starting in 2023 Biden “would have to spend the last two years of his term being a moderate.”  

Even as McConnell is trying to keep the focus on Biden, he’s faced headaches of his own including a high-profile division on strategy with Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chairman of the Senate GOP campaign arm, who released his own policy agenda. 

McConnell has publicly distanced the Senate GOP caucus from parts of that plan. The issue dominated a closed-door GOP leadership meeting and other GOP senators also stressed, as Scott has, that the plan only represents the Florida Republican. 

But Democrats have seized on Scott’s plan seeking to tie it to candidates in key battleground states and in the party more broadly and pointing to it as a sign of what a Senate GOP majority would mean. 

“Voters will hold every GOP Senate candidate accountable for their party’s unpopular, toxic agenda,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Nora Keefe said in a recent statement. 

But GOP senators believe that Biden, not Scott, will be the deciding factor in November. Biden’s approval average has been stuck in the low 40s for months, according to data compiled by FiveThirtyEight.  

A recent Gallup poll also found that 53 percent of Americans said that they worry about crime a “great deal,” while another 27 percent worry a “fair amount.” That trailed in third place beyond the inflation and economy, which 59 percent and 58 percent, respectively, told Gallup they worried a “great deal” about. 

“He was elected because people thought he would try to bring people together. … The message of the midterms, I believe, will tell him people want him to come to the middle and closer to our point of view,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said. 

McConnell did talk up his ability to cut deals with Biden during the Obama administration, telling Axios that a GOP Senate and a Democratic administration would be a “combination of contrast and some cooperation.” Progressives, during the Biden administration, have criticized those deals. 

“There are things that need to be done for the American people when you have a time of divided government. In fact, I negotiated three major deals with Joe Biden while he was vice president during the Obama years,” McConnell said. 

GOP senators believe that if anyone in the caucus knows how to work with Biden it’s McConnell. The two served in the chamber together and McConnell lauded Biden in December 2016 as the then-vice president was nearing the end of his tenure. 

“Mitch knows Joe Biden better than just about anyone else around here,” Cramer noted, asked about McConnell’s prediction that a GOP-controlled Congress could force Biden to the middle. 

But Washington’s political dynamic has evolved, and the battle lines between the two parties have hardened since then in the wake of the Trump administration and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, where a mob of his supporters disrupted the counting of Biden’s election win. 

And any hope of basic dealmaking would also have to confront a House GOP caucus that sharpened its teeth during the first two years opposing not only Biden but also agreements that McConnell worked out, as well as the growing shadow of the 2024 election. 

Cramer, noting that it could be wishful thinking, floated that a divided government could present an opportunity for a “skills-based immigration discussion.” 

Immigration has been a perennial white whale that Congress has never been able to catch. And Cramer acknowledged that the complicated policy and political dynamics could scuttle any chances, saying that “immigration is one of the best weapons of political war that there is.” 

“[But] those things present the opportunities for people on both sides to do something good for themselves politically as well as for the country and the economy,” he added. 

Tags Joe Biden John Thune Kevin Cramer Rick Scott

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