WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is counting on his personal relationships with veteran Republican senators to help his first major proposal — a massive coronavirus relief package — overcome legislative gridlock and become law.
But even the best of friendships might yield little progress in the current Congress, a place that has changed rapidly since Biden last held a Senate seat there a dozen years ago, longtime lawmakers and seasoned Capitol Hill operatives said.
“It’s become a lot more partisan,” said Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, who served with Biden for more than 20 years. “A lot less respect by a lot of people of traditions in the Senate, precedents, rules.”
Biden has said he wants his first legislative bill — a nearly $2 trillion coronavirus relief package — to receive at least some Republican support. It’s a desire that some liberal critics have derided as naive, but the president and his aides insist it is possible.
White House aides have repeatedly cited Biden’s deep and lasting relationships with senators as the reason why he is uniquely positioned to restore bipartisanship to the lawmaking process.
Many of the Republicans who were close to Biden, however, have long since left office. And those who remain say the institution, political parties and atmosphere are far less conducive to the type of deal-making that was more common during Biden’s nearly 40-year career in the chamber, which ended in early 2009 when he resigned from the Senate to become vice president.
Whether Biden’s connection to the 13 GOP lawmakers with whom he served in the Senate can help him tame those forces will set the tone for his presidency.
“It’s not just the Senate that’s changed,” said Billy Piper, a former chief of staff to Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “It’s society at large that’s changed.”
Biden doesn’t necessarily need Republican support to pass the coronavirus relief bill into law. Using a process known as reconciliation, a unified Democratic Senate caucus can pass it with 50 votes and the tie-breaking support of Vice President Kamala Harris.
But from the early days of his campaign, Biden emphasized an intention to bring the country together to start solving problems that have thwarted policymakers for decades. It’s an aspiration the new president reiterated this week, saying he’s optimistic he can eventually earn bipartisan support for his relief package.
Those close to Biden say his personal touch is much different than his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. The sitting president enjoys making calls to his former colleagues — though neither he nor the White House will say which ones — and does not harangue dissenters of his policies on Twitter.
“It’s not just about who he knows, it’s about how President Biden treats people and understands what they need,” said Kendra Barkoff Lamy, who was press secretary to Biden when he was vice president. “He respects their point of view, knows how to find common ground and that compromise is not a dirty word.”
When Biden was vice president to former President Barack Obama, he was the administration’s chief liaison to Capitol Hill, representing the White House at his party’s weekly luncheon and often negotiating directly with McConnell during legislative impasses.
His record on making deals in Congress, such as authoring the Violence Against Women Act in the 1990s, wins him praise even from Republicans, some of whom argue that Biden has a better chance to achieve legislative breakthrough than many in Washington expect. What’s important about the president is his “style and demeanor” when it comes to governing and not his Republican friendships, said Piper, the longtime Republican operative.
“By that, what I mean is, he doesn’t get out of bed being dismissive of the other side,” Piper said. “He gets out of bed thinking, ‘How can I accomplish my goals within the framework that exists?’ That was certainly absent in the last White House, and I would argue that’s a bit of a change from the president he worked for.”
The White House is promoting the idea that Biden and Harris, who was until earlier this month the junior senator from California, will be able to unite their former colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support a relief bill in a way that the previous administration could not.
“Obviously, the president served in the United States Senate for an extremely long time, has a wealth of relationships,” Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to Harris, told reporters. “And I think the president’s relationships coupled with the vice president’s relationships will prove extremely, extremely valuable as we go about the business — as they go about the business of truly building bipartisan support for these packages.”
White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre meanwhile brushed off a suggestion that the current Republican Party on Capitol Hill is different from the one that was in office when Biden served.
“A lot of the folks on the Hill who are senators, he’s known for a very long time and has had relationships with them for a very long time,” she said.
Still, there are many Senate Republicans who say they don’t know Biden very well.
“I don’t really have a relationship with the president. He was here a lot, but I was never in his circle,” said Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican who has served in the Senate since 2013.
McConnell and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham are among the Republicans who are still in the Senate and, in the past, have had good relationships with Biden. Graham once referred to his former colleague as “the nicest person I think I’ve ever met in politics” and “as good a man as God ever created,” although their relationship has somewhat soured in recent years.
Former Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who served with Biden in the Senate, said the Delaware Democrat’s frequent trips to Capitol Hill helped build his reputation there. And compared with Trump, Biden will have more “realistic expectations about what can happen in the Senate,” Corker said in an interview.
“But just because Senator McConnell and Joe Biden may have known each other a long time, Senator McConnell’s the kind of person that’s still going to be highly focused on the actual policy outcomes,” Corker said. “And importantly, where his caucus is, and all of that.”
Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, who was a House GOP leader when Biden was in the Senate, said that he and Biden were in many meetings together and found him to be “a likable guy.”
“I think relationships do matter, and I think that opens the door to find the things you agree on easier than you open that door otherwise,” Blunt said of Biden’s relationships with Senate Republicans. “But I don’t think it means that you suddenly wind up agreeing on things that in 20 years of knowing each other you have never agreed on before.”
It’s not just the people and policies that have changed in Congress, say veteran political operatives. The rise of social media has changed the very process of negotiating, making agreement more elusive at a time when lawmakers can receive instant feedback from constituents and special interest groups.
“There’s no question that relationships still matter,” said Brian Walsh, a former aide to Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. “The problem is how information is disseminated and processed so quickly on the left and the right that the debates are being defined before the lawmakers even reach an agreement. In the good old days, you could sit in a conference room and hammer out deals. Well, it can blow up in 10 seconds on Twitter now.”
(David Lightman contributed to this report.)