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Joe Biden and his team have promised to extend the bipartisan olive branch like no previous administration in a move that on the surface appears to match the new president’s long political history of seeking support from Republicans.
Since taking office, the Biden administration has stressed a willingness to work with Republicans on its major initiatives like a Covid relief bill. Behind the scenes, it has initiated a broad push to reach out to as many congressional offices as possible, getting in contact with both former and current Republican lawmakers and their staffs, and hosting a high-visibility meeting between almost a dozen Republican senators and Biden himself.
But, it seems that the president’s outreach – perhaps to the relief of the party’s left and observers long used to cynical Republican obstructionism – has its limits when it comes to actual decision-making.
Republicans are warning that Biden and his team may not be following up on their promises. They grumble most interactions have been at the staff level. These Republicans say that Biden’s initial flurry of executive orders issued in the earliest days of the president’s new administration suggest an underlying go-it-alone approach.
They also say if the Biden administration does pass a Covid relief bill through a legislative maneuver known as reconciliation, it will further send a signal of the real limits of how willing Democrats are to hammer out broad bipartisan deals. And Republicans gripe that Democratic interest in using a Covid relief bill to pass a minimum wage hike is yet another example of how uninterested the party in power is in working with Republicans.
“Biden talked about unity. He had that meeting with the 10 but he is being pushed aggressively by his so-called progressives,” the former Mississippi senator Trent Lott, a Republican, said. “His first real test will be what they wind up doing on the Covid package if they don’t agree to come down off the $1.9tn, if they don’t agree to not include things like the $15 minimum wage then it’s not going to be very bipartisan. In fact, it could fail.”
Tensions may be brewing but there hasn’t been a major public partisan blow-up yet. Biden regularly talks with Republican lawmakers in person and via phone, a Biden official noted. Some of those interactions are publicly known, including discussions with the senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Susan Collins of Maine.
“President Biden ran on a promise to bring Americans together to tackle the challenges facing our country, and in office he’s made clear his willingness to find common ground with Republicans lawmakers to get that done,” the White House spokesman Mike Gwin said in a statement.
Republican lawmakers still express openness to talking and working with the Biden administration. After a group of nine Republicans met with Biden to discuss a compromise on a broad Covid relief bill, Collins, one of the most centrist Republicans in Congress, said they hadn’t found a compromise but would keep talking.
“I wouldn’t say that we came together on a package tonight. No one expected that in a two-hour meeting,” Collins told reporters after the early February meeting. “But what we did agree to do is to follow up and talk further at the staff level and amongst ourselves and with the president and vice-president on how we can continue to work together on this very important issue.”
There was no ostentatious marching out by the Republicans. No condemnations about how ridiculous the other side was being. The channels were still open.
Biden also met with a bipartisan group of senators last week to begin talks on an infrastructure initiative.
Earlier this month members of the White House legislative affairs team were scheduled to meet with Senate Republican chiefs of staff during their regular lunch for an off-the-record meet-and-greet, according to three sources with knowledge of the lunch. The White House team warned there might be some scheduling bumps due to legislative events that day and the morning of the meeting the team said they had to cancel and reschedule.
Some chiefs of staff read the cancellation as the Biden White House blowing off Republicans. But other officials stressed it was a sincere time conflict and that the appearance would be rescheduled. The legislative team also stressed to Republican officials that they were eager to meet with them.
“It’s important that we get people to come and, frankly, I think some of us want to have a constructive relationship with these people,” said one Republican official. The meeting has since been rescheduled.
Notably also, Republicans are eager to express their respect for Louisa Terrell, the head of legislative affairs for the White House, and Reema Dodin, a deputy in that office.
“I can tell you as far as they’re concerned, they do want to work with us,” the official said. “We’re all sort of a little despondent at watching them steamroll us with this reconciliation but whatever, that’s not what this is about.”
Still, both Republican and Democratic officials are pessimistic about major bipartisan agreement in the immediate future.
There haven’t been some of the usual – and oftentimes ceremonial – gestures of bipartisanship that normally happen between one administration and leaders of the opposing party. Biden has not had a publicized meeting with the top four Republican and Democratic congressional leaders. The former senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who served as the Senate majority leader for Democrats from 2001 to 2003, has urged White House officials to organize one such summit.
At the White House’s daily press briefing on Tuesday, the press secretary, Jen Psaki, was asked whether the administration expected it could work with a Republican party as adversarial as it has been in recent years.
“The country is looking for action, the country is looking for progress – for solutions – on Covid, on the economy. The package that the president has proposed has the support of almost three-quarters of the public in most polls,” Psaki said.
Daschle said it was still early for Biden and he deserved “high marks for his outreach to date”. Daschle added that this is not the same Senate that Biden worked in.
“He has relationship-building to do, and reconstructing relationships that he had before with people like Mitch McConnell,” Daschle said.
Daschle added that Biden will also need to offer an agenda “that if he wants bipartisan work it’s going to need bipartisan involvement. That’s probably not possible with the first Covid relief package because he has very ambitious aspirations for what that bill should look like. I don’t think it’s likely that he’s going to get Republican support for his aspirations.”
He said: “So he has to do decide between a major accomplishment that he’s put so much of his own personal stock into or getting bipartisan buy-in, and I think he’s going to choose the former rather than the latter.”