Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden: A Relationship In The Senate : Embedded It looks very likely President-elect Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be "Washington's new power couple." What do their non-relationship in the Senate, their negotiations during the Obama administration, and their warm speeches over the years tell us about how they will or won't work together under a Biden presidency?
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Essential Mitch: The Relationship

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Essential Mitch: The Relationship

Essential Mitch: The Relationship

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Hey. I'm Kelly McEvers, and this is EMBEDDED from NPR.

December 30, 2012 - the United States was about to go over this thing called the fiscal cliff. And without going into too much boring budgetary detail, what that meant was if Congress didn't do something before midnight on New Year's Eve, there would be these massive tax increases and spending cuts all at the same time, which could put the country into a recession. Democrats wanted to tax anyone who made over $250,000 a year. Republicans wouldn't allow a tax increase even on people who made more than a million a year. Negotiations stopped.

Mitch McConnell was the ranking Republican in the Senate at the time, and he picked up the phone and called the one person he thought could help, someone he had worked with in the Senate - Joe Biden, who was flying on Air Force Two. So McConnell left Biden a voicemail.

JANET HOOK: The voicemail - according to Mitch McConnell, the voicemail said, is there anyone over there who knows how to make a deal?

MCEVERS: Over there meaning the White House. This is Janet Hook, national political reporter at the LA Times. She's covered Congress since the '80s.

HOOK: What I like particularly is the kind of bossy rest of the message. This is McConnell to Biden - I need you to get up to speed on this, Joe. Get off the plane. Think about things and call me in an hour. This is vice president of the United States.

MCEVERS: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOOK: And then McConnell - after placing that call, McConnell goes to the Senate floor and announces that he's trying to break the logjam and that he called Joe Biden.

MCEVERS: What happened next is something people are talking about a lot these days. Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell got together and negotiated a last-minute deal to keep the U.S. from falling off the fiscal cliff. In the end, the tax increases were for anyone who made over $400,000 a year.

People are talking about it these days, of course, because Biden is now president-elect, and Mitch McConnell is poised to remain the Senate majority leader if Republicans keep control of the Senate. That could change if Democrats win two Senate seats in Georgia in January. We'll talk more about that later. But the idea is that if these guys were able to negotiate back then, maybe they'll be able to work together now. Biden even campaigned on the idea this year.

Janet and her colleague Jackie Calmes, an editor in the Washington bureau of the LA Times who's also covered Congress since the '80s, say it's not exactly like that. You can see it in the way McConnell kind of summoned Biden on that voicemail.

JACKIE CALMES: McConnell, you know, was not impressed with Joe Biden's new title - that he was no longer a senator; he was vice president of the United States. There was still - you know, McConnell, as Janet said, was being the bossy one.

MCEVERS: Thing is, a lot of people say Biden gave away too much in those negotiations. Still, there's the sense that these guys are friends. And because of that, things are going to go back to an earlier time when these negotiations were more civil, a time when politicians from two different parties could actually work together.

You know, there's this sense that these two are buddies. Is that actually true? Are they friends?

HOOK: Oh, no. No. I would not describe their relationship as friendship.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOOK: They have worked together on a lot of hard things. There have been personal touches in their relationship. But I don't think that means that they are friends in any way that would be recognizable to the rest of us.

MCEVERS: So, OK, not a friendship - a decent working relationship. Either way, it's a relationship that could affect our lives a lot in the coming years. If McConnell does keep control of the Senate and if there is an uncontested, peaceful transfer of power from President Donald Trump to President-elect Joe Biden, how Biden and McConnell continue to work together will be really important. One recent article even called Biden and McConnell Washington's new power couple.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: If you listened to the show last year, you know we did a whole series on Mitch McConnell - how he rose to power, what he did once he got it. Now that it looks like he'll be the most powerful Republican in Washington, we figured it's time to talk about him again. We're also updating the series. We'll be publishing it every week through the end of the year. And on today's show, Janet and Jackie are going to look back on the relationship between McConnell and Biden and help us understand what it could mean for the next few years. That's after this break.

OK. We are back, and we're going to spend some time walking through Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell's relationship over the years. Again, they were in the Senate together for decades, back when the Senate was a more chummy place. But still, Jackie Calmes and Janet Hook of the LA Times say the two men just didn't spend that much time together - until later.

CALMES: There is one funny story that McConnell tells in his memoir about dealing with Biden. In 2008, after Jesse Helms, the former senator from North Carolina, died, they flew down to North Carolina together on a private plane. And McConnell mentions in his biography in the lead-in to the story...

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE LONG GAME: A MEMOIR")

MITCH MCCONNELL: (Reading) As my dad would've said about the vice president if they'd ever met, if you ask him what time it is, he'll tell you how to make a watch.

MCEVERS: This is McConnell reading the passage from the audio version of his autobiography.

CALMES: Referring to Biden's long-windedness. So he describes how on the flight down to North Carolina...

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE LONG GAME: A MEMOIR")

MCCONNELL: (Reading) Well, Joe started talking the minute we got on the plane, and he didn't stop until the moment we landed. I think this quality of Joe's is endearing.

CALMES: It was all kind of in the spirit of, he's a good guy. I like him very much, but let me tell you this thing about him, as if nobody knows that Biden was famously long-winded. And McConnell went on from telling that anecdote to write in his memoir that...

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE LONG GAME: A MEMOIR")

MCCONNELL: (Reading) Not only did I like Joe, but I also learned that he didn't only talk; he also listened. He was, therefore, someone I could work with.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So, yeah, Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell don't have this 25-year history of working together in the Senate, getting in the weeds, writing legislation. It turns out Biden and McConnell actually got closer because of Barack Obama. Remember; when Obama was elected president in 2008, he was elected with this pretty big mandate. Democrats controlled the House and Senate, eventually passed a big signature bill, Obamacare, which, by the way, no Republicans voted for. Then in the 2010 midterms, Republicans got control of the House, which meant that to get anything done, the two sides would have to compromise.

Janet and Jackie say McConnell, the ranking Republican in the Senate, just did not like to negotiate with Obama. For one thing, they say he thought Obama's almost four years in the Senate before becoming president wasn't enough time.

CALMES: And one thing that Mitch McConnell respects is time in the institution. But I think also, temperamentally, President Obama had not yet developed that senatorial way of deal-making. McConnell thought that Obama was very preachy and arrogant, and his nickname for him was Professor Obama. He just thought that Biden knew how to listen as well as talk.

MCEVERS: So the job of negotiating with Republicans fell to Biden. He'd go to Capitol Hill, spend time in the vice president's office there, walk around, talk to people in ways that Obama just didn't do.

CALMES: And one thing that Mitch McConnell really appreciates is somebody like Biden, who - I think he believed that Biden was good at seeing the political imperative that the other side faces and being willing to be practical about that and say, OK, Mitch McConnell is a Republican, he can't go past this line; I am a Democrat, can't go past this line, and that that was not in Obama's skill set.

HOOK: Right. And then when it came to an issue, one thing McConnell really hated is if he was talking to President Obama, the president would talk about the issue as if he were trying to convince Mitch McConnell to change his mind. So let's say estate taxes. You know, he might talk to Mitch McConnell about how, well, Republicans can say all they want about how this is for farmers and ranchers, but really, you know, it's negligible the number of farmers and ranchers who really benefit from this. This is the richest of the rich that benefit.

Now, Biden wouldn't even go there. He would just think, OK, the Republicans got to have their repeal of the estate tax, so we got to just see how we can work it to limit it and get something in return. And he was not going to sit there and talk about the pros and cons of the issue and take up time doing that.

MCEVERS: Interesting. Right. Mitch McConnell is like, yeah, we're not here to, like, make grand speeches about our feelings.

HOOK: Right. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. This isn't - his perspective was, this isn't a debating society. This is a deal-cutting exercise.

CALMES: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Coming up, the personal moments in the relationship - after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: OK. We are back, and we're talking to Jackie Calmes and Janet Hook, longtime political reporters who now work at the LA Times, about the relationship between Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell.

So a few years after all this deal-making went down between Biden and McConnell, Joe Biden's son, Beau Biden, who had also been the attorney general of Delaware, died of brain cancer. It was an incredibly painful time for his father. McConnell was the only Republican senator to attend the funeral. The following year, Biden was presiding over the Senate in his role as vice president, and McConnell announced he was renaming a bill to fund cancer research.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCONNELL: I think it's fitting to dedicate this bill's critical cancer initiatives in honor of someone who'd be proud of the presiding officer today, and that's his son, Beau. And in just a moment, that's exactly what the Senate will do, renaming the NIH's cancer initiatives in this bill after Beau Biden.

MCEVERS: It was 2016. Donald Trump had recently won the presidency. And the day after this, Biden was presiding over the Senate for the last time as vice president. McConnell gave Biden a tribute speech. He told that joke about how much Biden likes to talk and referenced their deal-making days.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCONNELL: Obviously, I don't always agree with him, but I do trust him implicitly. He doesn't break his word. He doesn't waste time telling me why I'm wrong. He gets down to brass tacks. And he keeps in sight the stakes. There's a reason, get Joe on the phone, is shorthand for, time to get serious, in my office.

MCEVERS: And I was watching that on C-SPAN, and I was thinking, wow, he's being so funny and so warm. You know, it's just a side of McConnell that people don't often see or hear. And I looked at the date, and I was like, oh, it's December 2016. Like, in his mind, this is his farewell. You know, he's like, I'm never going to have to deal with this guy again 'cause I've - you know, we've won the White House. We've won the Senate.

CALMES: Right.

MCEVERS: And now I can say all the nice things. And I just wonder - yeah, I can't - I wonder if he could ever have imagined, you know, this moment.

CALMES: I don't think he could. I mean, a lot of people couldn't. Who would've imagined that at 77, Joe Biden would, after passing on the run for president in the 2016 cycle, would come back and win it all in 2020? I think, like, the speech you mentioned, it was very nice of McConnell to say that to Joe Biden. And in the past, Mitch McConnell has loved to compliment Joe Biden as a deal-maker when he was vice president to Barack Obama.

But knowing Mitch McConnell, you have to remember that he gets a little bit of a fiendish pleasure out of praising Joe Biden because he knows it drives the base of the Democratic Party crazy. And it's not a big help to Joe Biden to be...

MCEVERS: Praised by Mitch McConnell.

CALMES: ...To get praise from Mitch McConnell.

MCEVERS: Oh, my God. Of course.

CALMES: That's going to be doubly true going forward.

MCEVERS: That's totally it. So it's like a bit of a troll.

CALMES: Yeah.

MCEVERS: Like, it's like...

CALMES: Exactly. Do you think so, Janet - that there's, like, a bit of, like, McConnell just loves the fact that he can - it's like owning the libs.

HOOK: Absolutely. I think there's no question about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So what does all this stuff that happened in Biden and McConnell's relationship during the eight years that Biden was vice president tell us about what might happen when he's president? There's already been quite a bit of reporting on what a Biden presidency and a McConnell Senate look like. One thing that could be affected are Biden's Cabinet nominations. The Senate has to approve those nominations. So we're already seeing progressive names that some observers say won't be on the list. Some say that actually could help Biden stave off criticism from the progressive base of his party. Like, McConnell made me do it. I had no choice. I talked about that with Jackie and Janet.

So the big question hanging over all of this - right? - is, like, how reasonable is - are they going to be, right? How beholden is each one to the base that's further to the right or left than they are, right? How is each one going to respond to the new reality? Like, and are they going to go sort of back to the time before - right? - like the foggy old days of 2010, 2011, 2012?

HOOK: Oh, I think we know they're not going to go back to the old days. There is no going back. This really is terra incognita, though. Especially with the Senate, McConnell will be important and powerful no matter which side of the majority he's on. The best - at this point, the best Democrats can hope for is a 50-50 tie that's broken by the vice president.

MCEVERS: And this, again, let's just make sure - just for people who don't know, this is only if Democrats win both the Senate seats in Georgia in the runoffs in January. That would mean the Senate is 50-50 and that Kamala Harris, the Democrat, vice president, would be the tie-breaking vote.

HOOK: If the Democrats have a 50-50 tie broken by the vice president, they have control over what bills come to the floor. They have control over bringing up a nomination.

MCEVERS: Right.

HOOK: They have the chairmanships of all of the committees. It really makes a huge difference in the functioning of the Senate.

MCEVERS: When Janet says we are now in terra incognita, she's talking about how McConnell has, some would say, bent the rules and the norms of the Senate to his political advantage, namely not allowing a vote on Merrick Garland, President Obama's pick for the Supreme Court, during an election year, but pushing through President Trump's pick, Amy Coney Barrett, just before an election. McConnell says he was not breaking norms, that the Democrats had their own dirty tricks with Supreme Court nominations.

Still, I asked Janet and Jackie if they think, despite this good working relationship between McConnell and Biden that we've talked about, would McConnell block Biden's judicial nominees? Their answer - he will certainly try.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: As far as what legislation they might agree on, it's pretty well understood that some kind of COVID relief package will happen not long after the inauguration. After that, infrastructure, climate change. Jackie and Janet say getting bipartisan agreement, even on stuff that's seen as moderate, could be far-fetched. A third of the Senate is up for reelection in two years. That could motivate senators to do something or to do nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: We hear a good bit about how, you know, the left base of the party, the progressive wing in the party will, you know, push Biden and, you know, to do certain things. I mean, McConnell has his own sort of right wing to deal with in the Senate as well. I mean, one of the things that makes the Senate a different place is, you know, he has members now who are much less likely to be compromisers, also. Is that part of the issue, too, for him going forward?

HOOK: Yes, for sure. There are a lot of senators who never lived in the world that - of bipartisanship that Biden and McConnell can remember - that they've never served in a Senate where consensus was easy and a regular part of the legislative process. So in one sense, Biden will have to give a tutorial in how to approach bipartisanship to a lot of people, and that includes Democrats as well.

CALMES: Right. And...

HOOK: The other dynamic on the Republican side is that there are several Republicans in the Senate who might think that they will be running for president and defining themselves in terms of the parameter of, how Trumpy do I want to be? How do I make my mark? And, probably, negotiating with the Democrats isn't a great way to get started on your campaign for president.

MCEVERS: Is not a thing you want on your report card.

CALMES: Right.

MCEVERS: Still, even if Trumpiness matters to Republican voters, I wondered if a post-Trump world could actually be better for Mitch McConnell.

Do you think he himself is a little bit - is there a part of him that's probably kind of glad that it's going to go back a little bit to the way things were?

CALMES: Oh, absolutely. I think he's the happiest person in Washington that Trump lost.

MCEVERS: Really?

CALMES: At least McConnell can say he got everything he could've hoped for and then some...

MCEVERS: Right.

CALMES: ...Out of Trump in the four years.

MCEVERS: He confirmed more than 200 conservative judges to the federal bench, three Supreme Court justices. And Jackie says he no longer has to worry about coming to work at the Senate and getting asked about a controversial presidential tweet.

HOOK: I would put it more succinctly and say that if Mitch McConnell's main goals are keeping the Senate in Republican hands and packing all of the country's courts, federal courts with conservative judges, he could look back at Election Day and say, my work is done.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: But, of course, Mitch McConnell's work is not done. He just won reelection. He's got six more years in the Senate. He's just been renamed the Republican leader. A colleague called him the apex predator of the Senate. And as of today, Tuesday, November 10, 2020, McConnell has not acknowledged that Joe Biden won the presidency, and he says President Donald Trump is 100% within his rights to challenge the outcome of the election.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: This episode was produced by Rhaina Cohen and edited by Jenny Schmidt, with editing help from Chris Benderev and Deirdre Walsh. Our supervising producer is Nicole Beemsterboer. Some music by Blue Dot Sessions. We had fact-checking help from the wonderful RAD team at NPR.

Like I said, we will be airing our series that takes a deep look at Mitch McConnell's rise to power, his career in the Senate and how he confirmed more than 200 conservative judges to the federal bench starting a week from today, every week through the end of the year. And if you want to listen to all of our episodes about Mitch right away, we put together a Spotify playlist. Just search Spotify for EMBEDDED Presents Mitch McConnell. We'll be updating it over the next few weeks as we update the episodes. We'll be back soon with more. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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