WASHINGTON — Joe Biden began Inauguration Day joining in prayer at a church service with the Democrats’ legislative nemesis, Mitch McConnell, a gesture of unity after four years of division and bitterness that will quickly be tested by the new president’s ambitious plans.
No relationship may be more important to the tone and domestic agenda of Biden’s presidency than his dealings with McConnell, the Senate Republican leader who bestowed on himself the nickname “Grim Reaper” of Democrats’ plans as he regularly obstructed Obama administration priorities.
Biden has frequently expressed optimism that he will be able to mend party divisions to make deals with McConnell, drawing on a shared history of 24 years together in the Senate and eight years across the table and at opposite ends of the phone line while Biden was vice president.
The Republican leader has suggested he intends to put some distance between his party and now former President Donald Trump, telling the Senate on Tuesday that the mob that attacked Capitol Jan. 6 was “fed lies” and “provoked by the president.” That could underpin a strategy to go into the 2022 midterm election with some tangible legislative achievements and a record more appealing to centrist suburban voters.
Biden’s hopes will be tested early with the incoming administration’s drive for quick passage of a $1.9 trillion Covid relief package as the economy teeters and Americans daily die by the thousands in the pandemic. The Biden team is also impatient for the quick confirmation of key cabinet members traditionally afforded incoming presidents while the Senate faces a potentially contentious impeachment trial of Trump.
Plenty of Democrats are skeptical of the prospects for cooperation.
“I think they’ll work together initially,” former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said in an interview, identifying COVID relief and infrastructure investment as potential areas for compromise. “I’m hopeful that it will go on the entire Congress, but I have my doubts.”
The two creatures of the Senate may soon face a choice between accommodation, stalemate or an all-out battle to scrap the chamber’s revered filibuster, which allows a minority to block most legislation and fosters a climate of deference to individual senators beloved by most of its members.
In negotiating the rules for a 50-50 Senate with incoming Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, McConnell “expressed his long-held view that the crucial, long-standing, and bipartisan Senate rules concerning the legislative filibuster remain intact, specifically during the power share for the next two years,” Doug Andres, a spokesman for the Kentucky Republican, said.
Before long, “there’s going to have to be a decision made,” added Reid, who served in the Senate from 1987 to 2017. “In my opinion, it’s not a question of if, it’s when the filibuster goes away.”