, | USA TODAY
Biden: ‘More people may die’ if Trump resists smooth transition
President-elect Joe Biden said “more people may die” without cooperation from the Trump administration on COVID vaccine distribution.
WASHINGTON – Joe Biden and John McCain were having it out on national television nearly thirty years ago, bitterly debating U.S. involvement in the conflict in Bosnia, when the dispute veered into the kind of personal exchange common in today’s politics.
“John, are you saying air strikes would not help the people in Srebrenica right now? Is that what you’re telling me?” Biden, then a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said as he pressed McCain, the Arizona Republican who died in 2018.
“I have not the foggiest notion as to what – ” McCain said before Biden cut him off.
“I know you don’t.”
It was the kind of verbal brawl that, in 2020, might blow up on Twitter, feature in a fundraising email and leave a bruise. But a longtime confidant of McCain said the 1993 bout with Biden on CBS – and others like it over the years – weren’t as personal as they seemed, largely because of the relationship the two colleagues had forged.
More: In meeting with Biden, emergency workers plead for COVID equipment
Now President-elect Biden hopes the relationships he built during a career in the Senate will help him transcend partisanship and push an ambitious agenda through Congress – a coronavirus stimulus, an investment in infrastructure, a comprehensive immigration bill and changes to the U.S. health care system.
Skepticism runs high about whether the former vice president’s history can translate to the post-Trump era. But even veteran political hands from both parties say they haven’t given up entirely on the idea that relationships still matter in Washington.
“He gets the benefit of the doubt,” said Mark Salter, the longtime McCain aide. “People will still go to their corners on ideological issues but when you’re trying to get stuff done that has to get done I think that’s still a real asset that Biden has.”
Biden v. McConnell
Biden is beginning to build a wish list for Capitol Hill even as President Donald Trump is disputing the election results with a series of challenges legal experts describe as questionable. Trump’s unfounded claims of victory – as well as two Senate runoff elections in Georgia in January – have muddied Biden’s chances of moving legislation.
Underscoring the current landscape, it’s not clear whether Biden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have even spoken since the election. The two were able to broker deals together during the Obama administration, but McConnell has so far declined to publicly acknowledge Biden’s win while Trump continues his fight.
Former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican who endorsed Biden, said McConnell’s silence is predictable given the pressure he’s under from his own GOP caucus and constituency back in Kentucky.
“There are political realities and currents that McConnell’s got to deal with,” Hagel said. “But I don’t think any of this will affect what happens after Jan. 20 when Biden and McConnell and other leaders in Congress have the responsibility to govern.
McConnell aides declined to answer questions about Biden’s agenda.
A Biden transition official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy acknowledged aides are developing two different visions for the incoming president’s first 100 days in office, one in which Democrats claim control of the Senate after the runoffs in Georgia, and a less ambitious plan if they do not.
Biden himself acknowledged as much in a call this week.
“We’re going to run into some real brick walls initially in the Senate unless we’re able to turn around Georgia and pick up those two seats, but even then it’s going to be hard,” Biden said during a private call, according to multiple reports. “But I believe, I believe I know the place. I believe we can ultimately bring it together.”
Some Democrats in Congress share the concern.
“I’m unfortunately pessimistic on seeing 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 Biden would have to rely on executive orders to accomplish at least some of his goals. Both Trump and President Barack Obama also leaned heavily on those orders when they couldn’t get Congress to take up their priorities. That often meant judges – not lawmakers – had the final say on the policies.
But before Biden can even get to legislation, he’ll have to win Senate confirmation for his Cabinet – a process that could serve as an early test of his ability to maneuver in Washington.
‘You’ve got to have trust’
Supporters say Biden has an advantage his recent predecessors did not. While neither Trump nor Obama relished wading into the personal politics of Capitol Hill, Biden made a career out of it. It’s how he was able to cut deals with McConnell during the 2013 fiscal cliff crisis, the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011 and the battle over Bush tax cuts in 2010.
Ted Kaufman, a longtime Biden ally who is leading the president elect’s transition, said the former vice president’s fundamental approach to making deals hasn’t changed, and predicted the recipe would be effective even if Republicans retain control of the Senate.
Biden’s playbook, Kaufman told USA TODAY, rests on walking through legislation – line by line, if needed – and building trust, including with political adversaries.
“You’ve got to have trust to get these things done,” Kaufman said. “Sometimes people will negotiate and then there will be implications in a bill that they did not understand and may be hard for them back home. You have to have kind of the inner ability to realize that once you make a deal, it’s a deal. Joe Biden – that’s the way he’s always been.”
As part of that trust building, Kaufman predicted that the incoming Biden administration wouldn’t look to spring unexpected policy proposals on Capitol Hill. Instead, Kaufman said, transition officials are building out a policy agenda based on Biden’s campaign promises, which included a focus on COVID, immigration and infrastructure.
Kaufman brushed aside a question on whether McConnell’s reticence to acknowledge Biden’s election victory this month could harm the atmosphere for bipartisan deal making.
“He doesn’t hold grudges,” Kaufman said of Biden.
Shift in the Senate
It’s been a little over a decade since Biden played a pivotal role in helping Obama get a $787 billion economic stimulus through Congress in 2009, a deal that helped pull the nation out of the Great Recession. But much has changed in the Senate since then.
Biden, then vice president, managed to convince Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who would switch to the Democratic Party months later, to vote for the bill along with GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine. Since then, many of the centrists from both parties have left, often complaining that the incentives and personal relations that made deals possible were beginning to ebb.
Hagel, who also served as defense secretary from 2013 to 2015 under the Obama administration, said the president-elect’s deal-making ability is more relevant in the post-Trump era. Biden’s leadership will improve on 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 limousine and going up to the Hill and meeting with members of Congress,” he said. “I just don’t know anybody who would be better equipped at a time like this to handle these kind of things. I am biased, yes, but I’m also a realist and I’m still Republican.”
Phil Schiliro, a former director of legislative affairs for Obama, said Biden has the “skills and a real commitment” to finding the kind of bipartisan compromise that used to be possible. But, he added, it takes two to negotiate.
“That’s going to be the key question,” he said. “Will Republicans want to meet him halfway, or want to meet him at all?”
Contributing: Christal Hayes, Phillip M. Bailey, Ledyard King, Maureen Groppe