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Why Biden’s team sees reasons for optimism in dealing with Mitch McConnell

McConnell’s new relationship with the incoming Democratic president will arguably be the most significant in Washington.
In this Jan. 6, 2021, photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., walks from the Senate floor to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington.
In this Jan. 6, 2021, photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., walks from the Senate floor to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington. [ MANUEL BALCE CENETA | AP ]
Published Jan. 20

WASHINGTON — He credited him with bipartisan leadership that produced results. He said he trusted him implicitly as a man who doesn’t waste time or break his word. And he even went so far to call him a “real friend,” a rarity in modern day Washington.

This is how Mitch McConnell spoke of Joe Biden in December 2016 — a moment when many observers believed the then-vice president’s government service had reached its sunset.

But Biden’s power is about to hit its apex.

Now, as the resilient leader of the Republican caucus in a 50-50 U.S. Senate, McConnell’s new relationship with the incoming Democratic president will arguably be the most significant in Washington. And aides and allies to Biden are guardedly hopeful that these two septuagenarian institutionalists have a better shot at a constructive pairing than the Kentuckian did with former President Barack Obama.

Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a close Biden ally who met with McConnell a few weeks ago to extend an olive branch on legislative initiatives, said McConnell’s farewell tribute to Biden in 2016 provides him the most tangible case for optimism.

“I saw in his enthusiasm for that moment signs of actual friendship,” Coons recalled, adding, “It was Joe who got sent up to deal with McConnell on Obama’s behalf.”

Biden aides are keenly aware that one of McConnell’s main objectives is to be in the center of the action as the pivotal figure in any crucial Senate negotiation. They are also clear-eyed that the soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader will often oppose Biden initiatives and the size of Democratic spending requests. Their encouragement stems mostly from the personal connection between the two men — that mutual respect and trust fostered over their governing tenures will blunt partisanship when it comes to confronting the coronavirus pandemic and economic malaise.

“Having McConnell’s partnership — or at least reducing his level of obstruction — is absolutely essential,” Coons said.

Biden and McConnell have remained in contact personally and through intermediaries like Coons in the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s unprecedented inauguration. McConnell has accepted Biden’s invitation to attend Mass with him on Wednesday morning before the noon swearing in ceremony, according to a McConnell aide. McConnell has signaled that he would give Biden’s Cabinet nominations fair hearings, while sharing his grievances over how some of President Donald Trump’s nominees were treated by Democrats.

Two areas where the two sides see potential for agreement include investments in infrastructure spending and an expansion of the national service program AmeriCorps, which would add thousands of workers to help respond to the pandemic.

But left unaddressed are the two issues that will dominate the opening weeks of Biden’s presidency: The new administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that Republicans are already complaining includes too many progressive policy goals and the looming impeachment trial of soon-to-be former President Donald Trump.

Given the sheer size of Biden’s big-ticket spending proposal, which is more than double the amount of Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package in 2009, McConnell is likely to balk at the price tag. And even if Democrats move to pass the package with a simple majority, using budget reconciliation, they risk losing moderate Democrats who may align themselves with McConnell and against the new administration.

“McConnell will do what the opposition party does and has the responsibility to do: He’ll challenge him and he should, not just to accept anything and everything,” said Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska and secretary of defense under Obama. “No, I don’t think you’ll see Mitch immediately jump on to it … but that’s OK. It’ll be a different form, a different number.”

Speaking on the Senate floor on Tuesday, McConnell pointedly said the 2020 election result did not demonstrate that Americans were seeking “sweeping ideological change.”

“Our marching orders from the American people are clear. We are to have robust discussions and seek common ground,” McConnell said. “We are to pursue bipartisan agreement everywhere we can, and check and balance one another respectfully where we must.”

But McConnell and Biden have a history of working through the tough details of a fiscal package on an urgent timeline. It fell to the two former Senate colleagues to resolve the “fiscal cliff” in the final hours of 2012 that permitted tax hikes on the wealthy as well as steep domestic spending cuts in order to avoid a recession.

“Their past cooperation was most successful at the end of 2012 when the fiscal cliff loomed and their negotiating staff knew and trusted each other,” said Jon Kyl, a former Republican senator from Arizona. “The latter will be critical to future cooperation.”

Asked whether that experience could lend itself to Biden having more success with McConnell than Obama did, Kyl only carefully replied, “a shot.”

Through the 2020 Democratic presidential primary campaign, when Biden was accused by some liberals of being too cozy with Republicans, his characterization of his relationship with McConnell was more balanced. He called McConnell “a tough nut,” but a figure he could have an open dialogue with.

“We’re not friends,” Biden said in May of 2019, “but we worked out every deal, remember?”

Later in the midst of his slumping campaign defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden made the point of portraying McConnell as a nemesis.

“Mitch McConnell has been the biggest pain in my neck in a long, long time,” he said during a February 2020 primary debate.

McConnell, as customary, is playing his cards close to his vest. As he negotiates with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer over how they’ll share power over the next two years, he remains open to convicting Trump of the high crime of “incitement of insurrection,” without committing to it.

But Democrats say it won’t take long to see the strategic decision McConnell makes. He’ll base his calculation on a myriad of factors: Biden’s willingness to compromise, Trump’s conduct as he departs the White House for Mar-a-Lago, the political survival of his most vulnerable Republican senators and his smartest play for returning to the post of majority leader.

“I would think within a month,” said Phil Schiliro, who served as Obama’s legislative director. “We’ll see how the confirmation process goes and how this first proposal is received. That’ll give us a sense.”

• • •

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