Biden and McConnell's visit to Kentucky signals White House roadmap for next two years under split Congress
Covington, Ky. — Joe Biden's first public appearance of 2023 came alongside a Republican lawmaker reviled by progressives, someone opposed to much of the White House agenda and who once pledged to make the last Democratic president a one-termer.
But on Wednesday, a smiling Biden feted Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell as a friend, colleague and "man of his word."
"It wouldn't have happened without your hand," Biden told McConnell during a trip to the Kentucky lawmaker's home state to celebrate last year's bipartisan infrastructure law. "He's willing to find common ground to get things done for the country."
The rare joint appearance in Covington, Ky., represented an early effort to signal the White House's eagerness for cooperation ahead of a politically combative next two years.
It was also an attempt at political inoculation. The White House specifically invited McConnell along with other senators and governors from Kentucky and Ohio, and used the event as a chance for Biden to highlight the $1.6 billion slated to rebuild a bridge between the two states as a bipartisan success story.
Biden aides and allies say they're counting on 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 election of a new speaker. The White House recognizes the need to avoid a government shutdown, keep aid to Ukraine flowing and stave off a catastrophic breach of the debt ceiling. They see McConnell as key to all those items.
"There's still going to be strong partisan differences on a large majority of issues," said an adviser to the White House. "But they both understand that when you can agree, you should if it's in the best interest of the country and it serves your political purpose."
Speaking to a crowd along the Ohio River, McConnell called the infrastructure law a "legislative miracle." And though he declined to address Biden by name, the Republican praised the effort to find common ground "no matter who gets elected."
"The country needs to see examples like this of coming together and getting an outcome," he said.
Biden was far more direct.
"Mitch, it's great to be with you," he said, joking that he'd "asked permission" to compliment McConnell. "I said I'd campaign for him or against them — whichever would help him the most." But the president quickly noted: "When he gives you his word you can take it to the bank, you can count on it."
The Biden-McConnell relationship is, to a degree, an anachronism. The two men served for decades together in the Senate. And they have a history of cutting deals dating back to the Obama era, when they reached agreements on extending the Bush tax cuts, lifting the debt ceiling and the so-called fiscal cliff, which averted an economic meltdown. Biden, as vice president, appeared at the McConnell Center in Louisville in 2011, where he lavished praise on the senator at a time when the Kentucky Republican was openly trying to dislodge his boss from power. Four years later, McConnell was the lone Republican to attend the funeral for Biden's son, Beau.
"They've known each other for decades," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a close McConnell ally. "And Joe Biden is a hard guy not to like, even though you may 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 last Congress' bipartisan infrastructure law and backed bills to boost semiconductor manufacturing and improve gun safety.
"His support, in my view, of the infrastructure bill itself was critically important to our being here today," former GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who led the legislation, said of McConnell, adding that the Republican leader had "showed political courage."
Biden on occasion has gone so far as to refer to McConnell as a "friend," and sought his advice in crafting U.S. policy toward Myanmar, an area in which the Republican leader maintains a deep interest. At one point last year, the White House planned to nominate an anti-abortion judge favored by McConnell to Kentucky's district court — a scheme halted only after fellow Republican Sen. Rand Paulrefused to sign off on what he called the "secret deal."
The event was part of a broader administration blitz to promote Biden's legislative accomplishments across the country and portray him as an enthusiastic cross-aisle collaborator. McConnell greeted Biden on his arrival in Kentucky and rode with him in the motorcade.
Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine and Democrats Sen. Sherrod Brown and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear were also among those in attendance.
Paul and newly sworn-in GOP Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio were also invited to appear with Biden on Wednesday, a White House official said, but opted against it.
For Biden and McConnell, the event came at a political crossroads for both men, with Biden having one eye on a likely reelection campaign and McConnell picking up the pieces of a failed effort by Republicans to win back control of the Senate.
It is a particularly opportune time for the administration, offering a split screen moment with House Republicans who spent a second day feuding over who they should pick to lead them. By highlighting the investment in McConnell's state, officials are explicitly seeking to broaden Biden's cross-aisle appeal with voters — and draw a clear contrast with the partisan hostility that the White House anticipates from the newly GOP-controlled House.
As he departed the White House on Wednesday morning, Biden told reporters the House speaker drama was "embarrassing" but "not my problem."
"Biden is absolutely sending a message to the American people that there are people you can trust to govern," the adviser to the White House said of the calculations behind the event. "And then there's the House Republican caucus."
But while McConnell's appearance may represent the possibilities of 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 like the federal budget, funding for Ukraine and the debt ceiling, there is little to suggest that the White House will have any luck moving legislation through a GOP-led House chamber.
Administration officials have sought to play up Biden's record in reaching compromises — and make clear to McConnell and other deal-minded Republicans that they're open to bipartisan coalitions aimed at finding even small areas of agreement.
"I think that will begin to reach people there: Look what bipartisanship looks like," Brown said prior to the event. "This is a $1.6 billion investment. It took a new president and a new Senate to do it."
Though McConnell has opposed much of Biden's agenda, he's resisted the most extreme demands of the GOP's conservative base — including flatly rejecting the idea of impeachment.
Both Biden and McConnell allies, however, cautioned against reading too much into Wednesday's joint appearance. There's little expectation on either side that Biden and McConnell will immediately find a slew of other shared legislative goals. The Brent Spence Bridge event, they noted, serves to benefit their respective interests.
For McConnell, funding for the project will help break a lengthy impasse over how to pay for repairs to a critical roadway between Kentucky and Ohio — and deliver a win for a lawmaker who has reinforced his political power over decades by consistently delivering for his constituents.
"This is a bridge that has been a major national issue for 25 years, and my top transportation project for decades," McConnell said in a brief interview Tuesday. "And it's going to be fully funded by the infrastructure bill, which I supported."
The White House, for its part, is using the occasion to kick off what's likely to be an extended campaign to emphasize the impact of infrastructure legislation that aides believe most voters haven't yet fully grasped. Biden advisers view that public relations effort as crucial to the president's popularity ahead of an anticipated reelection bid, especially with his policy ambitions likely limited by the GOP blockade in the House.
"President Biden at the end of 2022 spoke to the country about how his most significant achievements of his first two years of his term were bipartisan achievements," said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who added that Wednesday's event with McConnell demonstrates the president "understands that we make our best progress as a country when we do it together."