Biden heads to Kentucky to talk bridges and deploy McConnell as a political buffer
When Joe Biden makes his first public appearance in 2023, he will do so next to a Republican lawmaker reviled by progressives, one who had promised to make the last Democrat in the White House a one-shot.
The president joins the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in his home state of Kentucky on Wednesday, a rare joint appearance meant to celebrate last year’s infrastructure bill.
It is an attempt to signal the White House’s eagerness for cooperation ahead of the potentially tumultuous next two years.
It is also an attempt at political inoculation. The White House, which organized the event, specifically invited McConnell along with other senators and governors from Kentucky and Ohio.
Biden aides and allies say they expect the minority leader to remain something of a bulwark against the GOP’s riskier impulses — hammered home this week by chaos on the House floor over the selection of a new speaker. The White House recognizes the need to avoid a government shutdown, keep aid to Ukraine flowing and avert a catastrophic breach of the debt ceiling. They see McConnell as the key to all these things.
“There will still be strong partisan differences on a vast majority of issues,” said a White House adviser. “But they both understand that when you can agree, you have to do it if it’s in the best interest of the country and it serves your political purpose.”
The Biden-McConnell relationship is somewhat of an anachronism. The two men served for decades together in the Senate. And they have a history of deal-cutting dating back to the Obama era, when they struck deals to extend the Bush tax cuts, raise the debt ceiling and the so-called fiscal cliff that averted an economic meltdown. Biden, as vice president, appeared at the McConnell Center in Louisville in 2011, praising the senator at a time when the Kentucky Republican was openly trying to remove his boss from power. Four years later, McConnell was the lone Republican to attend the funeral for Biden’s son, Beau.
“They have known each other for decades,” Sen said. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a close McConnell ally. “And Joe Biden is a hard guy not to like, even though you might disagree with him on policy.”
Since Biden was elected, aides to both men said, the two have maintained a working relationship as well as a shared belief that the Senate can still get things done. McConnell helped pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill as well as shepherd bills to increase semiconductor production and improve gun safety.
Biden has on occasion gone so far as to refer to McConnell as a “friend,” and sought his advice in shaping US policy toward Myanmar, an area in which the Republican leader maintains a deep interest. At one point last year, the White House planned to appoint an anti-abortion judge favored by McConnell to Kentucky’s district court — a plan that was stopped only after another Republican senator. Rand Paul refused to report on what he called the “secret agreement”.
Paul and newly sworn-in GOP Sen. JD Vance of Ohio were also invited to appear with Biden on Wednesday, a White House official said, but neither is expected to attend.
The event in Covington, Ky., is part of a broader administration blitz to promote Biden’s legislative achievements, focusing on the roughly $1.6 billion in funding from the infrastructure bill that will go toward a major bridge project between Kentucky and Ohio.
It also comes at a political crossroads for both men, with Biden keeping one eye on a likely re-election campaign and McConnell picking up the pieces in a failed effort by Republicans to regain control of the Senate.
It’s a particularly opportune time for the administration, offering a split-screen moment with House Republicans as they spend another day arguing over who to pick to lead them. By highlighting the investment in McConnell’s state, officials are explicitly seeking to broaden Biden’s appeal across the aisle with voters — and draw a stark contrast to the partisan hostility the White House expects from the newly GOP-controlled House.
“Biden is definitely sending a message to the American people that there are people you can trust to govern,” the White House adviser said of the calculations behind the event. “And then there’s the House Republican Caucus.”
But while McConnell’s performance may represent the possibilities for bipartisanship over the next two years, the standoff in the House underscores the challenges facing Biden. As he prepares for a series of showdowns on critical issues such as the federal budget, funding for Ukraine and the debt ceiling, there is little to suggest the White House will be successful in moving legislation through a GOP-led House.
Administration officials have sought to play up Biden’s record for reaching compromises — and make clear to McConnell and other committed Republicans that they are open to bipartisan coalitions aimed at finding even small areas of agreement.
“I think it will start to get through to people there: See what bipartisanship looks like,” the senator said. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who will also be at the event. “This is a $1.6 billion investment. It took a new president and a new Senate to do it.”
Although McConnell has opposed much of Biden’s agenda, he has resisted the most extreme demands of the GOP’s conservative base — including flatly rejecting the idea of impeachment.
Allies of both Biden and McConnell cautioned against reading too much into Wednesday’s joint appearance, however. There is little expectation on either side that Biden and McConnell will immediately find a number of other common legislative goals. The Brent Spence Bridge event, they noted, serves to benefit their respective interests.
For McConnell, funding the project would help break a longstanding impasse over how to pay for repairs to a critical road between Kentucky and Ohio — and deliver a victory for a lawmaker who has bolstered his political power over decades by consistently delivering for its constituents.
“This is a bridge that has been a major national issue for 25 years, and my best transportation project in decades,” McConnell said in a brief interview. “And it will be fully funded by the infrastructure act that I supported.”
The White House, for its part, is using the occasion to kick off what is likely to be an extended campaign to emphasize the impact of infrastructure legislation that aides believe most voters have not yet fully grasped. Biden advisers believe the public relations effort is critical to the president’s popularity ahead of an expected re-election, especially with his political ambitions likely limited by GOP gridlock in the House.
“At the end of 2022, President Biden spoke to the country about how his most important accomplishments in his first two years in office were bipartisan accomplishments,” the senator said. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who added that Wednesday’s event with McConnell demonstrates that the president “understands that we make our best progress as a country when we do it together.”
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.