Biden and McConnell: How Their Past Will Shape Their Future

December 16, 2020 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Blog Brand: Politics Tags: Joe BidenMitch McConnellDonald TrumpPoliticsRepublicans

Biden and McConnell: How Their Past Will Shape Their Future

With a hyper-partisan political climate booming after President Donald Trump’s White House term and a split country, it’s unclear whether the Biden-McConnell duo will be able to revive previous cooperative behavior.


It was the end of 2012, and the United States was about to fall off a “fiscal cliff.” 

The “cliff” would have imposed widespread tax increases and spending cuts if Congress didn’t reach an agreement before the year’s end, likely putting the country into bubbling economic turmoil. 


Then Joe Biden, who was the vice president at the time, received a voicemail from the ranking Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, that initiated talks for a last-minute deal between the White House and upper chamber that ultimately prevented the United States from tumbling down a “cliff.” The two ended up hammering out a deal, as the country was in a bind, adding to the swirl of negotiations the Biden-McConnell dynamic committed to during the Obama administration.

With Biden now as president-elect and the Senate majority still up-in-the-air, lawmakers have turned to his and McConnell’s historic relationship on Capitol Hill to see whether they’ll be able to swiftly negotiate legislation, as the two men have nearly eight decades in office between them.

“They both know how to compromise,” Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and later defense secretary under former President Barack Obama told NBC News. “They both know how to get things done. And I start with the fact that they trust each other, they like each other, and boy, that's important. And if you start there as the baseline, then you can work together. They're not going to agree on everything, of course not, but they can make things work and move this country forward.”

After the two served in the Senate together for more than twenty years, Biden was elected vice president under Obama, where he assumed the responsibility to reach across the aisle with Senate Republicans. McConnell and other GOP lawmakers preferred to work with Biden than Obama on legislation, as the Kentucky senator even said in 2016 that “The guy to negotiate with in the administration was the vice president and not the president.” 

McConnell dubbed the former president at one point as Professor Obama due to his haughtiness and inability to negotiate with the GOP. And so, because of this tension, Biden worked with lawmakers on the Hill to sort through compromise. 

But with a hyper-partisan political climate booming after President Donald Trump’s White House term and a split country, it’s unclear whether the Biden-McConnell duo will be able to revive previous cooperative behavior. 

“Whether McConnell and Senate Republicans will decide conditions in the country are now so severe that cooperation is necessary, or whether they will judge voters now expect it of them, is the central question of American politics now,” Rogers Smith, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “The answer is unclear but it would be optimistic to expect much change.” 

Most experts are skeptical of a smooth negotiating table ahead—in the event that Democrats lose the Senate seats in the Georgia runoff elections in January—citing McConnell’s past intentions in thwacking Obama’s policy agenda. 

“Assuming McConnell is still the majority leader, I’m not sure what he’s going to do,” Richard Lau, a professor and chair of the political science department at Rutgers University, said “My understanding is when Obama was elected, they decided before he even took office, that they were going to oppose everything that he suggested. And if they follow that same strategy again, then . . . will old relationships or something be able to overcome that? I’m not sure.” 

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), echoed Lau’s remarks, noting that McConnell’s “previous deals with Biden were not based on their friendship but his assessment that they served his interests—including reinforcing his portrait of Obama as untrustworthy. He may cut deals with Biden on, say, infrastructure and Covid relief, because he sees it as a way to keep his Senate majority in 2022, and to avoid damaging criticism.” 

Although Biden and McConnell brokered some compromises under the Obama administration, the last four years provided swift change in the makeup of the GOP, as some Republicans—like McConnell—remained loyal to Trump, while others distanced themselves from the administration. McConnell’s loyalty allowed him to become a Republican powerhouse in terms of his judicial wins during Trump’s term, but it also sowed pushback from Biden and Democrats, as the president-elect even referred to him as “the biggest pain in my neck in a long time” during a primary debate. McConnell has also collided with the former vice president, as he said in April that Biden will have to release information related to a sexual assault allegation from Tara Reade.  

And it wasn’t until this week—nearly six weeks after Election Day—that McConnell congratulated Biden on becoming president-elect. 

But Biden’s entire Cabinet is in the hands of the majority leader, and experts think it’s likely that there will be resistance from the GOP in at least one of his posts. 

“It would be very surprising if at least one of President-elect Biden’s nominees does not get withdrawn or voted down,” Kevin Kosar, a resident scholar at AEI, said. “In part, the sheer math makes it probable: The Senate will need to review and confirm around three hundred individuals nominated to cabinet agencies, and another one hundred to independent agencies. But even if we only are speaking of cabinet department heads, at least one likely will have a rough road. The GOP likely will find one nominee to be too extreme, or simply decide that it needs to show its base that it is not a rubber stamp.”

Ornstein added that McConnell “will find a few Cabinet and other nominees of Biden to derail, to do some political damage and show the president's vulnerability, and probably to help divide Democrats. We will go from no oversight of Trump appointees to hypercharged and often overdone scrutiny.”

Other considerations at play for the upcoming administration is that McConnell’s caucus will likely include some 2024 GOP presidential candidates, many of which will either put up a fight to push through bipartisan progress with the other side of the aisle and stay loyal to “Trumpism” ideology or be willing to thrash out a compromise. This divide puts the majority leader at the centerpiece of political talk, especially depending on the outcome of the Georgia runoff elections.

“I think the world has changed, and . . . Biden is clearly, his message right now is, we have to work together, we have to get past this, we have to put this behind us. And the country, you know, this is destroying the country,” Lau said. “To the extent that [McConnell] works with Biden, then he’s sort of saying, ‘yeah you’re right on this.’ I don’t know if they’ll be able to do that.”

Biden has dubbed himself as “an American president” for both Republicans and Democrats, with the hopes of putting the divided climate in the country’s past.

Now, although the two are expected to face some political roadblocks in months ahead, the two reportedly have a mutual respect for one another, and experts agreed that both sides of the aisle will likely reach agreements on economic relief, infrastructure reform, a postal reform bill and foreign policies regarding NATO and Russia. 

The two have also formed somewhat of a personal relationship, especially after the death of Beau Biden.  

In 2015, McConnell was the only Republican senator to attend Beau’s funeral and later called Biden “a real friend” at the end of his term as vice president. The Kentucky senator also renamed a bill to fund cancer research following the death of Joe Biden’s son.

“I think it's fitting to dedicate this bill's critical cancer initiatives in honor of someone who'd be proud of the presiding officer today, and that's his son, Beau. And in just a moment, that's exactly what the Senate will do, renaming the NIH’s cancer initiatives in this bill after Beau Biden,” McConnell said. 

But it’s difficult to determine whether this friendship will translate to negotiating legislation, considering “the country is more polarized now than it was twelve years ago,” according to Lau, and because “there is only one way to understand Mitch McConnell: he does not do things out of friendship. He does things based on his assessment of his own and his party's interests,” Ornstein said.

“Biden is confident he will find Republicans in the Senate to work with. That will be true only in areas where McConnell lets them,” Ornstein added. 

Rachel Bucchino is a reporter at the National Interest. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report and The Hill. 

Image: Reuters