WASHINGTON – The two players in the most important relationship in Washington finally are ready for a face-to-face meeting.
President Joe Biden’s sit-down on Wednesday with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and other congressional leaders comes as the White House accelerates its efforts to reach a bipartisan infrastructure agreement — or at least aims to show it’s trying. But McConnell is plainly stating in advance that he’s not interested in the plan as proposed.
The president's meeting with McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is the first formal gathering of the “big four” congressional leaders since the president took office — a late start after a tumultuous new year. But the timing is crucial for White House’s outreach on Biden’s two-pronged $4 trillion American jobs and families plans.
At the center are Biden and McConnell, two stalwarts of the Senate who have traded expressions of friendship but whose ability to find political common ground seems limited. In a Washington controlled by Democrats by the slimmest of margins, it's unclear if they actually need each other to accomplish their political goals.
Republicans have balked at the size of Biden's proposals — a sweeping plan that moves beyond roads and bridges to dramatically expand the social safety net — and at the president’s plan to pay for it with tax increases on the wealthy and corporations.
But in recent days, Biden has deliberately and publicly opened the door further to compromise, explicitly saying that he was willing to negotiate the size of the overall package and the size of the tax hike. That echoes what White House staffers have been telling their Capitol Hill counterparts in the last week, according to administration officials.
But it takes two to compromise. McConnell will arrive at the White House on Wednesday “cleareyed” about what Biden wants, according to a Republican familiar with his thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations, and about whether the president truly needs his help to pass the legislation.
Just days before the meeting, the Republican leader said his goal was simply, and essentially, to halt the Democratic president’s agenda.
McConnell said “100% of my focus is stopping” the Biden administration, a comment that evoked his vow early in the Obama presidency to make the Democrat a one-term president.
“I like him personally,” McConnell said of Biden later, softening his tone somewhat. “I want to do business with the president. But he needs to be a moderate. He said he was going to be a moderate during the campaign. I haven’t seen that yet.”
Biden has long showcased his relationships with Republicans and made his ability to work across the aisle central to his governing ethos. But a growing number of Democrats believe it is wasted energy to try to work with a party that, in their view, too often turns obstructionist.
Biden chuckled ruefully when told of McConnell’s remarks.
“Look, he said that in our last administration, Barack, that he was going to stop everything — and I was able to get a lot done with him,” Biden said.
Biden’s most notable deal-making success with McConnell came in the Obama-era fiscal showdowns during the rise of the tea party. As vice president, Biden was a trusted emissary to Capitol Hill for Obama, who had a chilly relationship with the Republican leader.
The feeling was mutual for McConnell, who during the 2012 fiscal cliff crisis cut out White House negotiators to deal directly with Biden.
“Is there anyone over there who knows how to make a deal?” the Republican wrote in his memoir, recalling a voicemail he left for the then-vice president.
Rohit Kumar, a former deputy chief of staff for McConnell, said that “a lot of trust had been established” but noted that deals would be harder in the current, more polarized climate.
"It’s not that they can’t find the political middle — it’s that their parties’ circles have gotten further apart,” Kumar said in a recent interview.
White House aides were not surprised by McConnell’s declaration of defiance but believe that some common ground still is possible. Public polling suggests that the infrastructure plan, much like the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief law enacted in March, is popular with voters. But the COVID-19 bill did not receive a single GOP vote.
Steve Ricchetti, a senior White House adviser, said Wednesday's meeting is meant to “focus this conversation to where the priorities are and the space to find common ground.” From there, he said, it will become clearer in coming weeks "when there will be a real accelerated and pretty comprehensive dialogue on all of the elements.”
Biden and McConnell have so far had a relationship of necessity: What's unclear now is whether the president will need the senator's GOP votes. McConnell will carry a message that makes clear Republicans are unwilling to change the 2017 tax law, which they view as their signature domestic policy achievement, to pay for the investments, according to the Republican familiar with his thinking.
Biden and McConnell have had a few brief encounters, including at the president’s joint address to Congress two weeks ago, and at least two phone calls, aides said.
Aides said Biden would urge the Republicans to find some areas of agreement. He plans to stress to them that democracy itself is on trial and that the nation needs to prove that it can take care of its own as it grapples with the pandemic’s twin health and economic challenges.
“The way the president is thinking about it is that you could spend the entire meeting talking about areas of disagreement,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. “Or you could spend it seeking opportunity for common ground, and he is going to choose the latter.”
The president has hosted a trio of key Democratic senators at the White House already this week, including moderates Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both of whom the White House needs to keep on board for the massive spending bill. And on Thursday, Biden will meet with six Republican senators, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the ranking GOP member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, to hear their plans for a smaller and more narrowly defined infrastructure bill.
Aides said to expect Biden to host more Republicans in the weeks ahead of a soft Memorial Day deadline the White House set for gauging how feasible a bipartisan bill may be. Missing no opportunity, Biden buttonholed Louisiana senators John Kennedy and Bill Cassidy on an airport tarmac during a visit to their home state last week
“I made the point -- not exactly in these words -- that everybody is for infrastructure, nobody is happy with crappy,” Kennedy recalled of the conversation. “There’s a way to do this deal — if the president will limit it to infrastructure and then let’s have a frank discussion about how to pay for it.”
Biden’s response? “He listened,” Kennedy said.
Associated Press writer Josh Boak contributed to this report.