WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden, addressing a postelection gathering of congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday, said he hoped he could work with Congress on funding the government, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and supporting Ukraine.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy looked on stoically as Biden spoke. After the meeting, he walked out of the White House and told the waiting cameras that while he “can work with anybody,” he had told the president “it’s going to be different” once Republicans take control of the House of Representatives next year.
Biden and McCarthy will have to cooperate come January, when McCarthy is expected to secure the speaker’s gavel. Their relationship will determine not only the course of the remainder of Biden’s term but also more practical questions such as whether the United States will default on its national debt.
But the two men have done anything but find compromise over the last two years. The pair have spoken only rarely since Biden took office. They spent the run-up to the midterm elections excoriating each other: Biden cast McCarthy and his party as extremists who threatened the survival of democracy, while the California Republican said Biden had “launched an assault on the soul of America.”
Both the West Wing and House Republicans say it’s on the other party to make amends. White House aides and allies dismiss the need to soften relations with the speaker-in-waiting, arguing that the midterm elections — in which Democrats outperformed historical trends — validated the president’s policies.
“I don’t have to change any of the policies that have already passed,” Biden told reporters at a postelection news conference this month when asked about whether he would recalibrate his approach to working across the aisle. “I’m hopeful that Kevin and I can work out a modus vivendi as to how we’ll proceed with one another.”
Republicans, meanwhile, lament the White House has made little effort to work with House GOP members, many of whom rejected the bipartisan deals the president cut with the Senate on infrastructure, domestic semiconductor funding and gun safety reform.
“I would characterize not just Biden’s relationship with McCarthy but his whole relationship with Republicans as rocky,” Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said. “There’s going to need to be a lot of healing.”
McCarthy has his own political problems to contend with as he looks to secure the speaker’s gavel. With a narrower-than-expected majority, McCarthy can afford to lose only a few GOP votes. His failed 2015 bid to replace then-House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, was derailed by hard-line conservatives — the same wing of the party that threatens to block him from securing enough votes to win the speakership on the first day of Congress on Jan. 3.
“We have to speak as one voice. We will only be successful if we work together, or we’ll lose individually,” McCarthy told Newsmax on Monday. “You have to listen to everybody in the conference, because five people on any side can stop anything when you’re in the majority.”
McCarthy’s office declined to answer questions about White House outreach or his relationship with Biden.
The GOP’s slim majority in the lower chamber will play to the president’s advantage next year, White House advisors argue, pointing to Republican freshmen who won in districts that Biden carried in 2020 and who will need to develop moderate reputations if they hope to win reelection in 2024.
Incoming House members such as George Santos, who flipped a New York seat from blue to red, and John James, who won an open seat in a purple Michigan district, have signaled a willingness to work across the aisle. (Neither Santos’ nor James’ office replied to a request for comment.)
The Biden administration’s hopes for cooperation with a handful of moderate Republicans are naive, said Brendan Buck, a former senior adviser to Republican Speakers Boehner and Paul D. Ryan. House Republicans have shown little appetite for a robust legislative agenda and instead have signaled plans to pass symbolic messaging bills, he said.
“The speaker decides what comes to the floor and the speaker is held accountable by the conference and the conference is overwhelmingly deeply conservative,” Buck said. “There’s going to be all kinds of conflict and acrimony.”
Republicans have promised to mount aggressive oversight investigations on issues as diverse as the administration’s policies on border security, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the FBI raid of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and the business dealings of the president’s son Hunter Biden.
Though McCarthy has so far fended off right-wing calls to impeach Biden, he has entertained impeaching members of the Cabinet, including Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas.
The White House has been preparing for the Republican investigations since the summer, hiring a cadre of lawyers to coordinate an administration-wide response to the expected congressional subpoenas next year.
“A lot of the tone of this relationship is going to be set by whether the Biden administration participates in legitimate congressional oversight,” said Scott Jennings, a longtime advisor to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “And if they don’t participate or they make it difficult, that’s going to set a really bad tone for everything else.”
The president and his aides have said the Republican focus on investigations could backfire with voters, who sent a message to Washington that they want both parties to work together.
“The American people just told us that they want boring, normal government,” Jennings said, referring to the outcome of the midterm elections. “And I think within the confines of boring and normal you can actually make some progress on party preferences.”
An adversarial relationship between a speaker of one party and the president of another is a normal feature of Washington politics. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously feuded with Trump while President Barack Obama engaged in partisan wrangling with Boehner and Ryan. Buck recalled the collapse of the secret “grand bargain” that Obama and Boehner tried to strike to avoid a debt default and enact sweeping changes to the tax code — a failure that led to finger-pointing and shattered any hopes of deal-making.
Like Obama, Buck said, Biden is an incumbent president running for reelection — for now — and McCarthy and Republicans need to be seen as the “loyal opposition.”
Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who oversaw a Republican majority in Congress from 1995 until 1999, said any cooperation between Biden and McCarthy will have to happen between the men themselves, and not at a staff level.
“There’s been no indication so far that Biden feels any pressure to modify what he’s been doing,” Gingrich said, pointing to Biden’s recent trip to Egypt, where he promised more funding to help developing countries deal with the effects of climate change — a proposal that’s unlikely to go anywhere in a GOP-led House. “They’re behaving as though [Nancy] Pelosi is going to be speaker again.”
Still, McCarthy needs to choose his battles, said Gingrich, who campaigned with the California Republican before the midterms.
Republicans “have to pick their fights carefully and be willing to stick with them,” he said.
McCarthy is already previewing his lines of attack. Standing outside the White House after his sit-down with Biden on Tuesday, he railed against the administration’s border policy, Biden’s call for Congress to impose a deal on rail industry workers and the president’s economic record.
“In another world, these two would probably get along really well,” Buck said. “Joe Biden has gotten where he is on the power of personality, which is not dissimilar from Kevin McCarthy. But I don’t think the political reality that they operate in now will even allow a chance at any kind of really meaningful working relationship in the next two years.”