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Biden hopes for major deals in Congress, despite post-Trump acrimony

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WASHINGTON- Joe Biden and John McCain almost thirty years ago, on national television, bitterly debating the involvement of the United States in the conflict in Bosnia, when the dispute veered into the kind of common personal exchange in today’s politics.

“John, are you saying the airstrikes won’t help the people of Srebrenica right now?” Is that what you’re telling me? Biden, then a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said while pressuring McCain, the Arizona Republican who died in 2018.

“I don’t have a clue what –” McCain said before Biden cut him off.

“I know not.”

It was the kind of verbal brawl that, in 2020, could explode on Twitter, appear in a fundraising email, and leave a bruise. But a longtime McCain confidant said the 1993 fight with Biden on CBS — and others like him over the years — wasn’t as personal as it seemed, largely because of the relationship that the two colleagues had forged.

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Now, President-elect Biden hopes the connections he’s forged during his Senate career will help him transcend partisanship and push an ambitious agenda through Congress — coronavirus stimulus, infrastructure investment. , a comprehensive immigration bill, and changes to the US healthcare system. .

Skepticism is high about whether the former vice president’s story can translate into the post-Trump era. But even veteran politicians from both parties say they haven’t completely abandoned the idea that relationships still matter in Washington.

“He gets the benefit of the doubt,” said Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime assistant. “People will always go to their corners on ideological issues, but when you’re trying to get things done that need to be done, I think that’s always a real asset to Biden.”

Biden vs. McConnell

Biden begins building Capitol Hill wishlist even as President Donald Trump challenges election results with series of challenges that legal experts describe as questionable. Trump’s unfounded victory claims — along with two Senate elections in Georgia in January — have clouded Biden’s chances of pushing through legislation.

Highlighting the current landscape, it’s unclear whether Biden and the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has even spoken since the election. The two were able to broker deals together under the Obama administration, but McConnell has so far refused to publicly acknowledge Biden’s victory while Trump continues his fight.

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Former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican who backed Biden, said McConnell’s silence was to be expected given the pressure he’s under from his own GOP caucus and constituency back to Kentucky.

“There are political realities and undercurrents that McConnell has to deal with,” Hagel said. “But I don’t think any of this will affect what happens after January 20, when Biden and McConnell and other congressional leaders will have the responsibility to govern.

McConnell’s aides declined to answer questions about Biden’s agenda.

A Biden transition official speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy acknowledged that aides are developing two different visions for the new president’s first 100 days in office, one in which Democrats claim control of the Senate after the second round in Georgia, and a less ambitious vision. plan if they don’t.

Biden himself acknowledged this during a call this week.

“We’re going to hit real brick walls in the Senate first unless we’re able to turn around in Georgia and take those two seats, but even then it’s going to be tough,” Biden said in a private call, according to multiple reports. “But I believe, I believe I know the place. I believe we can finally bring it together.

Some congressional Democrats share that concern.

“I’m sadly pessimistic to see a lot of bills move because of Mitch McConnell, just based on past experience,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis. co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Like other progressives, Pocan predicted that Biden would have to rely on executive orders to achieve at least some of his goals. Trump and President Barack Obama also relied heavily on these orders when they couldn’t get Congress to adopt their priorities. That often meant judges — not lawmakers — had the final say on policy.

But even before Biden can pass legislation, he will need to secure Senate confirmation for his cabinet — a process that could serve as an early test of his ability to maneuver in Washington.

“You have to trust”

Supporters say Biden has an edge his recent predecessors didn’t have. While neither Trump nor Obama appreciated wade through the personal politics of Capitol Hill, Biden has made a career out of it. This is how he was able to strike deals with McConnell during the 2013 budget cliff crisis, the 2011 debt ceiling crisis and the battle over the Bush tax cuts in 2010.

Ted Kaufman, a longtime Biden ally who is spearheading the president-elect’s transition, said the former vice president’s fundamental approach to making deals hasn’t changed and predicted the recipe will work even whether Republicans retained control of the Senate.

Biden’s playbook, Kaufman told USA TODAY, hinges on marching through legislation — line by line, if necessary — and building trust, including with political opponents.

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“You have to have confidence to do these things,” Kaufman said. “Sometimes people will negotiate and there will be implications in a bill that they haven’t understood that may be difficult for them back home. You have to have some kind of inner capacity to realize that once you’ve made a deal, it’s a deal. Joe Biden – that’s how he’s always been.

As part of this confidence-building, Kaufman predicted that the new Biden administration would not seek to make unexpected policy proposals on Capitol Hill. Instead, Kaufman said, transition officials are crafting a political agenda based on Biden’s campaign promises, which included a focus on COVID, immigration and infrastructure.

Kaufman brushed off the question of whether McConnell’s reluctance to acknowledge Biden’s election victory this month could damage the atmosphere conducive to reaching bipartisan deals.

“He doesn’t hold a grudge,” Kaufman said of Biden.

Change in the Senate

It’s been just over a decade since Biden played a pivotal role in helping Obama secure a $787 billion economic stimulus through Congress in 2009, a deal that helped pull the country out of the Great Recession. . But a lot has changed in the Senate since then.

Biden, then vice president, was able to convince Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania who switch to the Democratic Party months later, to vote for the bill with GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe from Maine. Since then, many centrists from both parties have left, often complaining that the incentives and personal connections that made deals possible were beginning to wane.

Hagel, who also served as defense secretary from 2013 to 2015 during the Obama administration, said the president-elect’s negotiating ability is more relevant in the post-Trump era. Biden’s leadership will improve the partisan environment that has marked the Trump administration, Hagel said, and restore the relationship between a president and Congress.

“I think you’re going to find Biden getting in his presidential limo and going up the hill and meeting members of Congress,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who would be better equipped at a time like this to handle this stuff. I’m biased, yes, but I’m also a realist and I’m still a Republican.”

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Phil Schiliro, Obama’s former director of legislative affairs, said Biden had “the skills and a real commitment” to find the kind of bipartisan compromise that was possible before. But, he added, it takes two to negotiate.

“That’s going to be the key question,” he said. “Will the Republicans want to meet him halfway, or will they want to meet him at all?”

Contributors: Christal Hayes, Phillip M. Bailey, Ledyard King, Maureen Groppe