The divergent images crystallized Wednesday with an unusual split screen. Just before noon, Biden convened the top party leaders for the first time at the White House — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
That directly followed a dizzying scene on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue as House Republicans ousted Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) from her position as their third-ranking leader. Cheney was targeted for her forceful challenges to the falsehood that former president Donald Trump won the last election.
Some Republicans suggested that the turmoil in the House GOP was a distraction. “Hopefully they’ll get some of these things settled down in the House and we can unite as a party and focus on the real threat here, which I think is the Democrats’ agenda and what it can do to the country,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) added, “Trying to re-litigate an election which is over and has been concluded by President Trump’s own Justice Department as being free and fair is not productive.”
Democrats, meanwhile, said it made sense to press ahead while the GOP was embroiled in internal warfare. “There’s an iron rule in politics, which is that when your opponents are destroying themselves, don’t interfere,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). He added that Biden “understands that keeping a steady demeanor is not just good personally, it’s great politics.”
This week’s flurry of meetings makes up Biden’s most concerted effort yet to entice Republicans into a deal on an infrastructure package, even as he conceded last week that he doesn’t fully understand the Republican Party as it goes through what he called “a mini-revolution.”
White House officials view this week as a crucial barometer of how much agreement they can find with Republicans, if any. The White House urgently wants at least one bipartisan accomplishment to tout by the 2022 midterms, and beyond the infrastructure bill, talks are underway on a bill to confront China and on a police overhaul measure.
But serious hurdles remain, including Democrats’ internal divisions and McConnell’s signals that he is determined to deprive Biden of a bipartisan win.
Biden also has talked this week with key Democratic centrists, speaking Monday with Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Tuesday with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden is attempting to avoid Republicans’ internal squabbles.
“At no point is our effort to fight for bipartisanship about being an arbiter or mediator between intraparty fighting in the Republican Party,” Psaki said. “So we’ll let the intraparty squabbling happen at the table over here, and at the table over here — or a smaller table in the Oval Office — we’re going to have a discussion about how we can work together.”
Many of the Republicans’ internal debates surround the past election and Trump’s role in the party.
That applies not just to Cheney’s ouster, but also to an unorthodox recount underway in Arizona, Trump’s insults of McConnell, and a series of battles within state GOP parties. Biden’s meetings this week, by contrast, focus heavily on policy — infrastructure spending, semiconductor chip shortages, police restructuring, job creation.
“We are continuing to work, even with the family excitement that’s happening on the other side of the aisle,” Psaki said.
Biden held a chummy virtual meeting Tuesday with six governors — three Democrats, three Republicans — to showcase bipartisan efforts to combat the coronavirus.
It began with Biden engaging in familiar banter, as he addressed the governors by their first names and joked about the weather. He told a Bidenesque tale about visiting the New York Yankees’ spring training accompanied by a Secret Service agent who was wearing socks with a Boston Red Sox logo, adding that he left with a bat from slugger Alex Rodriguez.
The president heaped praise on his guests for their work on vaccinations. “Governors in so many states, particularly the six that are here, have been essential partners in this effort,” Biden said, adding: “It isn’t Democratic progress and Republican progress. It’s American progress. And now we’ve got to take the next step together.”
Joining the bipartisan tone, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota told Biden that he and his Republican predecessor, Tim Pawlenty, had gotten vaccinated together. Walz added that he tells Republicans in Minnesota that they should get vaccinated, if only so they can stay healthy enough to vote against him.
Biden is approaching the talks over his infrastructure plan with far more patience — and, Republicans say, seriousness — than he did the negotiations over his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package in February.
Biden had held a meeting with 10 Senate Republicans to discuss the earlier measure, but much of that session involved Biden and his staffers batting down GOP ideas, and the White House concluded the Republicans were not making a serious effort to find common ground. Rather than prolong the discussions, Biden plowed ahead with a package that attracted no Republican votes.
This time, Biden and top Senate Democrats have taken a slower approach that includes repeated engagement with Republicans and have signaled they are willing to compromise on smaller-scale bills if that’s what it takes to win GOP support.
Biden has set a deadline of Memorial Day to show signs of progress on his spending plans but so far has not made clear just what type of progress he means.
Democrats said Biden’s meetings this week are not just for show, but are part of a strategy. “This is a textbook case of how you systematically work to build a coalition,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “You meet with senators individually. You meet with senators in groups. . . . You stay in touch by phone.”
Wyden recalled being at home recently, barely awake after an exhausting legislative session and dazedly considering whether to make a sandwich, when Biden called just to check in.
“His background, his résumé, is senator for most of his life,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). “He knows how the Senate works and knows how votes are counted. And he’s open to talking to people.”
Meanwhile, some Senate Republicans are signaling they might be willing to compromise with Biden on an infrastructure plan.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. V .) has released a counterproposal to Biden’s $2.3 trillion package. Although it’s far below Biden’s spending levels, her proposal has been received by the White House as a serious offer. McConnell on Sunday said that he would be open to an infrastructure spending package of up to $800 billion.
On Wednesday, McCarthy was in a sense set to embody the Republican divisions. He called the meeting to oust Cheney, largely because she has continued to say forcefully that Biden is the legitimate president. Then McCarthy headed to the White House for the meeting with Biden, whose election victory many in his party question.
Psaki said Tuesday that Biden is not bothered by McCarthy’s move to oust Cheney.
The debate over Cheney is part of the wider fissure in the Republican Party over fealty to Trump, with some eager to move past the former president and others saying that loyalty to him is their path back to power.
“The most popular Republican in America — it’s not Lindsey Graham, it’s not Liz Cheney, it’s Donald Trump,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Fox News host Sean Hannity on Monday. “People on our side of the aisle believe that Trump policies worked. They’re disappointed that he lost, and to try to erase Donald Trump from the Republican Party is insane.”
He added, “The people who try to erase him are going to wind up getting erased.”
But some Republicans worry that Trump is damaging the party’s ability to win over women, minorities and suburban voters, who have moved solidly into the Democratic camp in recent elections.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the former president continues to buttress his ego rather than strengthen the cause of democracy,” Romney said. “We should recognize that Joe Biden is president. He’s a legitimate president.”
Others said the party should be able to have tough discussions without turning them into existential dramas.
“We need every warm body in the Republican Party,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “This is something that we’re going to have to get through . . . so that even when you have intraparty spats like this, that it’s not a discussion [of] ‘Is it going to put us into irrelevance?’ ”
Other Republicans, however, dismissed the political danger, saying few voters are paying attention to the Washington squabbles.
“We have our internal issues like every large group or large family does, especially a large, diverse one,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). But “to be honest with you, if I sat down in the mall in Bismarck and talked to 100 unmasked Republicans, they wouldn’t even know what you’re talking about.”