Monday, September 20, 2021

in-focus

Biden launches a quiet effort to tame the Senate


In public, President-elect Joe Biden is spending most of his time announcing Cabinet appointments, meeting with health experts and giving speeches on unity. Behind the scenes, though, he's grappling with a grittier challenge that could be critical to his presidency - dealing with an unruly Senate.

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Biden's strategy, displayed in private conversations and some public actions, features two goals, both exceedingly difficult: winning the two Senate runoffs in Georgia to seize a razor-thin Democratic majority, while forging alliances with key Republican senators.

Both goals are increasingly evident, as Biden held his first phone call as president-elect this week with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and a short time later boarded a plane for Georgia to campaign for the two candidates whose victory would unseat McConnell as majority leader.

Biden's recent agenda has been driven, to a degree not always obvious, by his desire to take control of the Senate. Last week, he privately urged civil rights leaders to delay pushing for criminal justice reform by a few weeks so their rhetoric would not be used by Georgia Republicans to target Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

"We need those two seats," Biden said, according to tape of the call obtained by the Intercept.

In a meeting on Monday, Biden insisted to supporters that he could work with Republicans, despite the continued refusal of some GOP senators even to acknowledge his victory. "I may eat these words, but I predict to you: As Donald Trump's shadow fades away, you're going to see an awful lot change," Biden said on a call with grass-roots supporters.

Many Democrats are skeptical, saying Senate Republicans' determination to torpedo Democratic initiatives long predated Trump's presidency. McConnell, for example, refused to even consider President Barack Obama's final Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.

But Biden's agenda, from nominations to spending bills, will depend in no small measure on whether he can manage the Senate. As a 36-year veteran of the chamber, he is invested in the belief that he can succeed where Obama often failed.

"There are a lot of things that would make a huge difference if they can come together in the Senate and make progress," said Anita Dunn, an adviser to Biden's transition team. "His belief is that he is going to be able to work with people on both sides to come together around issues where there's general agreement and make progress that is going to benefit people in this country."

Biden has acknowledged that might require significant effort as well as time. He mused on Monday that it could take "six to eight months" before his new working relationship with the GOP was established, while also saying that he had already heard from seven "mostly senior" Republican senators.

"You're going to be surprised," Biden promised. "We're going to have a lot of people wanting to work with us."

Scott Jennings, a longtime political aide to McConnell, said that both Biden and McConnell believe in the institution of the Senate - a notion many Democrats scoff at - and predicted they will find areas to work together. "Nobody's going to get everything they want," Jennings added.

He offered some praise for Biden, suggesting he might have success where Obama did not. The former president served only four years in the Senate before rocketing to the presidency, and many Republicans complained that he was aloof and disdainful.

"The key difference is [Biden] is not totally inept when it comes to legislative affairs," Jennings said, adding that "Biden shouldn't expect McConnell and the Senate Republicans to roll over on things."

One likely area of conflict is judicial appointments. McConnell has been singularly focused on confirming scores of conservative federal judges, many of them relatively young and inexperienced, capped by the last-minute installation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. It is not clear how he will react to Biden's nominations.

The political environment confronting Biden is also in some ways markedly rougher than that facing Obama, who came into office with sizable majorities in the House and the Senate, and with an opponent who conceded quickly and graciously.

In Biden's case, just 12 of 52 Republican senators acknowledged his victory, according to a Washington Post survey of GOP members of Congress conducted before Monday, when the electoral college affirmed his win and more Republicans began to accept it.

Biden told supporters Monday that he believed he could find common ground on areas such as an infrastructure program and relations with China, particularly with the senators he has spoken to in recent weeks.

That list includes Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of Trump's closest allies in the Senate, The Post has learned. Others include Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who was the Republicans' 2012 presidential standard-bearer.

Romney's office issued a statement Tuesday confirming that he had "congratulated" Biden on his win and "expressed admiration for his willingness to endure the rigors of a presidential campaign and serve in the nation's highest office." The two discussed the country's deep political divides, the pandemic, the economy and China, the statement said.

After speaking with McConnell on Tuesday, Biden said he hoped for a sit-down soon with the majority leader. "We agreed we'd get together sooner than later," Biden said. "I'm looking forward to working with him."

But if winning over Senate Republicans would require a departure from recent history, so would two Democratic Senate victories in Georgia.

A Democrat has not won a Senate seat in the state in two decades. Biden was the first Democratic presidential candidate to capture it since Bill Clinton in 1992.

Even if both Warnock and Ossoff prevail, it would result in a Senate that is split 50 to 50; Democrats would control the chamber only because Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would break ties. And most legislation requires 60 votes in the Senate.

When he visited Georgia this week, Biden's bipartisan tone was far less evident as he took on Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.

"I need two senators from the state who want to get something done, not two senators who are just going to get in the way," he said at a car rally in Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon. "We can get so much done . . . and we need senators who are willing to do it, for God's sake."

And even some on Biden's staff tend to take a more partisan tone. In an interview with Glamour published Tuesday, Biden campaign manager Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, soon to be his deputy White House chief of staff, referred to Republicans with an expletive and said, "Mitch McConnell is terrible."

Along with the Democratic National Committee, the Biden operation has spent about $5 million on the Georgia runoffs, according to a Biden campaign official, and is paying for about 50 staff members to continue working in the state. In addition, the campaign has shifted about a dozen staffers who focus on data analytics, and Biden has been raising money directly for Ossoff and Warnock.

Behind the scenes Biden has also made it clear what he believes Democrats should be talking about, and what they should avoid, before the Jan. 5 vote.

In his video call with the leaders of seven civil rights organizations, he argued explicitly that criminal justice reform, an issue of great importance to the groups, was better tabled until after the Georgia vote.

"How much do we push between now and January 5th?" Biden said. "We need those two seats."

He reiterated this several times. "I also don't think we should get too far ahead of ourselves on dealing with police reform, because they've already labeled us as being 'defund the police,' " Biden told the civil rights leaders. He added, "That's how they beat the living hell out of us across the country - saying that we're talking about defunding the police."

Biden won Georgia by about 12,000 votes, a very narrow margin that relied on several different voting blocs breaking his way, including a strong turnout from African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans, along with roughly 30 percent of the White vote.

"He was just the right guy, because he was a moderate and people knew him and they thought he was bipartisan," Biden pollster John Anzalone said. "They didn't think he was a radical-left guy."

The moderation has been a hallmark of Biden's transition. He selected Tom Vilsack to be his agriculture secretary, for example, despite pleas from civil rights leaders who wanted him to name a Black woman and feared Vilsack would lead to a backlash in Georgia.

The Peach State happens to be the home state of Shirley Sherrod, a former official at the Agriculture Department whom Vilsack fired during his previous stint in the job. She was dismissed after a conservative news organization broadcast misleading snippets of a speech that made it appear she was biased against White farmers.

When a full recording emerged and it was clear Sherrod had been misrepresented, Vilsack apologized, and he also reached out to her recently. "I told him, 'It's been 10 years ago,' that 'I accept your apology,' " she told MSNBC's Joy Reid.

But Sherrod offered some conditions for her grace, saying she would like to see the department make a concerted effort to help groups such as Black farmers who have been disadvantaged, and at times lost their land, because they've been unfairly denied loans.

"I meant that, and I was ready to move on," Sherrod said. "I need to see that they are ready to move on with us."

Published : December 16, 2020

By : The Washington Post · Annie Linskey