COVINGTON, Ky. — Joe Biden made his first public appearance of 2023 with a Republican lawmaker that progressives hate, who is against most of what the White House wants to do, and who once vowed to make the last Democratic president a one-termer.
But on Wednesday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell was praised by a smiling Joe Biden as a friend, colleague, and “man of his word.”
“Without your help, it wouldn’t have happened,” Biden told McConnell during a trip to Kentucky to celebrate a bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year. “He’s willing to work with others to get things done for the country.” The rare joint appearance in Covington, Kentucky, was an early effort by the White House to show that it wants to work together before the next two years, which are likely to be very political and contentious.
It was also an attempt to protect the country politically. The White House invited McConnell and other senators and governors from Kentucky and Ohio. Biden used the event to talk about how the $1.6 billion set aside to rebuild a bridge between the two states is a good example of how both parties can work together to make things happen.
People who work for and support Biden say they’re counting on the minority leader to keep standing up to the GOP’s riskier tendencies. This week, the chaos on the House floor over the election of a new speaker proved this point. The White House knows it’s important to keep the government from shutting down, keep sending money to Ukraine, and keep the debt ceiling from being broken, which would be very bad. They think that McConnell is the key to all of these things.
A White House adviser said, “There are still going to be big differences between the parties on a lot of issues.” “But they both know that if you can agree on something and it’s good for the country and your political goals, you should.” McConnell told a group of people along the Ohio River that the infrastructure law was a “legislative miracle.” Even though he didn’t mention Biden by name, the Republican applauded the effort to find common ground “regardless of who wins.”
He said, “The country needs to see more examples like this of people working together to get something done.” Biden was much more to the point. “Mitch, it’s great to be with you,” he said, joking that he had “asked permission” to compliment McConnell. “I told him I would campaign for him or against them, whichever would help him the most.” But the president quickly said, “When he says something, you can count on it, you can take it to the bank.”
In some ways, the relationship between Biden and McConnell is out of date. The two men worked together in the Senate for many years. They have a history of making deals, going back to when Obama was in office. For example, they agreed to keep the Bush tax cuts in place, raise the debt ceiling, and avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff,” which would have caused the economy to collapse.
In 2011, Biden went to the McConnell Center in Louisville as vice president. There, he gave the senator a lot of praise at a time when the Kentucky Republican was openly trying to get rid of his boss. Four years later, when Biden’s son Beau died, McConnell was the only Republican there. A close McConnell ally, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), said, “They’ve known each other for decades.” “It’s hard not to like Joe Biden, even if you disagree with him on policy.”
Aides to both men say that since Biden was elected, they have kept working together and still believe that the Senate can still get things done. McConnell helped get a law on infrastructure passed by both parties in the last Congress. He also voted in favor of bills to boost semiconductor manufacturing and make guns safer. Biden has even called McConnell a “friend” on occasion, and he asked for his advice when making U.S. policy toward Myanmar, which is a subject that the Republican leader cares a lot about.
At one point last year, the White House wanted to put a judge on Kentucky’s district court who was against abortion and liked by McConnell. This plan was stopped when Republican Sen. Rand Paul refused to sign off on what he called the “secret deal.”
The event was part of a larger push by the administration to promote Biden’s legislative achievements across the country and show him as a willing person to work with people on both sides of the aisle. McConnell met Biden when he got to Kentucky and rode in the motorcade with him. There were also Democrats Sen. Sherrod Brown and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and Republicans Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky.
Paul and Ohio’s newly elected Republican senator J.D. Vance was also invited to appear with Biden on Wednesday, but they chose not to. Both Biden and McConnell were at a political crossroads when the event happened. Biden was probably going to run for re-election, and McConnell was cleaning up after Republicans failed to take control of the Senate.
It is a good time for the administration, since House Republicans have been fighting for a second day over who should be their leader. By bringing up the investment in McConnell’s state, officials are trying to make it clear that they want Biden to appeal to voters from both sides of the aisle. They also want to make a clear contrast with the partisan hostility that the White House expects from the newly GOP-controlled House.
As he left the White House Wednesday morning, Biden told reporters that the drama with the House speaker was “embarrassing,” but that it was “not my problem.” An adviser to the White House said that the event was planned to show the American people that there are people they can trust to run the government. “There’s also the Republican caucus in the House.”
But even though McConnell’s appearance could be a sign of bipartisanship in the next two years, the standoff in the House shows how hard it will be for Biden to get things done. As he gets ready for a series of fights over important issues like the federal budget, money for Ukraine, and the debt ceiling, it doesn’t look like the White House will have much luck getting legislation through a GOP-led House chamber.
Administration officials have tried to highlight Biden’s history of reaching compromises and let McConnell and other Republicans who like to make deals know that they’re open to bipartisan coalitions that try to find even small areas of agreement.
Brown said before the event, “I think that will start to show people there what bipartisanship looks like.” “We’re putting $1.6 billion into this. To do it, we needed a new president and a new Senate.” McConnell has been against a lot of Biden’s plans, but he has stood up to the most extreme demands of the GOP’s conservative base, like the idea of impeachment.
Allies of both Biden and McConnell, however, warned against making too much of their meeting on Wednesday. No one on either side thinks that Biden and McConnell will find a lot of other shared legislative goals right away. They both said that the Brent Spence Bridge event is good for their own interests.
For McConnell, getting funding for the project will help break a long stalemate over how to pay for repairs to a key road between Kentucky and Ohio. It will also be a win for a lawmaker who has built his political power over decades by always doing what’s best for his constituents.
McConnell said in a short interview Tuesday, “This bridge has been a major national issue for 25 years and my top transportation project for decades.” “And the infrastructure bill, which I helped pass, will pay for it all.”
The White House, on the other hand, is using the event to kick off what is likely to be a long campaign to stress the effects of infrastructure legislation, which most voters don’t fully understand yet, according to White House staff. The president is expected to run for reelection, and Biden’s advisers think that this public relations effort is very important to the president’s popularity, especially since the GOP blockade in the House is likely to limit his policy goals.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said that Wednesday’s event with McConnell shows that the president “understands that we make the most progress as a country when we work together.” “President Biden told the country at the end of 2022 that his most important accomplishments in the first two years of his term were bipartisan,” Coons said.
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