With a common enemy in hard-right Republicans, old Senate colleagues Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell have become pragmatic, if wary, allies.
Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and the unlikely political alliance between President Joe Biden and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is Washington’s latest display of the old adage.
To be sure, the Kentucky Republican and the president have publicly tangled over Biden’s proposals, and their political worldviews are drastically different. But with a common enemy – hard-right Republicans who could cause problems for both Biden’s agenda and McConnell’s hopes for a Senate majority – the two old Senate colleagues have become pragmatic, if wary,
Biden has made battling “MAGA extremists” a central theme of his all-but-announced reelection campaign, and McConnell, in his way, has joined in. McConnell has called out former President Donald Trump for dining with a white supremacist and has underscored that America must not default on its debt – a signal that Republicans must vote to increase the debt ceiling.
Last week, McConnell brutally took down a fellow GOP lawmaker, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, for proposing that all federal programs should sunset in five years – an idea Scott put in writing, in a 2022 midterm campaign memo, and which Biden has used to warn voters that Republicans might cut Social Security and Medicare. Not only is that a “Rick Scott plan” and not a GOP plan, McConnell told a Kentucky radio host, but Scott himself might find himself in campaign trouble in 2024 “in Florida, a state with more elderly people than any other state in America.”
For Biden, McConnell can be a useful ally, especially as the president seeks to convince voters he is eager to work on a bipartisan basis, says Democratic strategist Joshua Karp.
“By calling out the MAGA wing of the Republican Party, he has smartly opened up a deal-making wing of the party that might not even have recognized itself,” Karp says.
McConnell, meanwhile, is drawing a line as leader and sending a clear message to rank-and-file Republicans: You might be able to get away with that in the House, but not in my house.
It was House Republicans who shouted “liar!” and jeered at Biden during the State of the Union address, while House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, sat behind the president, unsuccessfully shushing his boisterous caucus members.
That came just weeks after a stark side-by-side display of the two congressional leaders’ workdays, with McConnell appearing with Biden in Kentucky at an event promoting the bipartisan infrastructure law while McCarthy battled to become speaker – a post he secured only after 15 ballots and making concessions that weakened his role.
McConnell – who has been a party leader for much longer than McCarthy – “has found a way to keep the Senate Republicans in line, which McCarthy does not have,” says Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute and a veteran Capitol Hill staffer.
“He doesn’t lose his temper” but uses it, Harkins says of the Senate Republican leader. “He uses his verbiage very carefully, and so he’s able to get across a sense of dismay” and corral his caucus, Harkins adds.
Biden has made it clear he won’t drop the politically potent issue of cutting Social Security and Medicare, and Republicans are scrambling to shut it down.
“McCarthy says he wants to attach spending cuts” to increase the debt ceiling, a vote that will become necessary to keep the country from defaulting on debts already incurred, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat, told CNN on Sunday.
Where is your plan, Mr. McCarthy? Is it Social Security and Medicare? Will it be police? Will it be the military?”
In fact, Republicans have not specifically suggested making any of those cuts, and McCarthy – along with McConnell has said he does not favor cutting the entitlement programs.
Sen. Mike Rounds, South Dakota Republican, endeavored in a CNN interview to find the balance between recommending changes to Social Security to keep it alive and threatening the program itself.
“I kind of look at it the way I look at the Department of Defense, defense spending. We’re not going to not fund defense – but at the same time, every single year, we look at how to make it better,” Rounds told CNN on Sunday. “It’s time we start talking about Social Security and making it better. Simply looking away from it and pretending like there’s no problem with Social Security is not an appropriate, responsible thing to do,” he added.
He made the comments in the context of talking about how Social Security might be changed to make sure it doesn’t fall short of its obligations as more people retire and not enough workers are paying into the fund. But Democrats used it as another example of a Republican threatening the beloved retirement program. And the line of political attack is cementing as the 2024 campaign begins.
“You’ve paid into Social Security every paycheck,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat and the former House speaker, said on Twitter, signing her initials to indicate she penned the tweet herself.
“It’s your money – but some Republicans want to cut your lifeline. They backed off when POTUS called them out on live TV – and Democrats will keep fighting to make sure they don’t sabotage Social Security behind the scenes.”