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Biden's meeting with GOP leaders: High stakes, low expectations

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WASHINGTON — As President Joe Biden prepares to welcome top congressional Republicans to the Oval Office for the first time on Wednesday, he appears to be struggling to reconcile a pair of core campaign pledges: to work across party lines — and to advance what he’s called the most progressive governing blueprint since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s.

While mindful of the challenge in keeping Democrats united behind his plan, Biden sees an even bigger roadblock to any potential bipartisan breakthrough in a Republican Party still largely adrift in the post-Trump era.

From the crowded Democratic primary through the heated general election campaign, the president cast his desire to seek common ground with Republicans as more than just his preference, but a governing imperative. “If we can't unite the country, we're in trouble,” he argued last fall at a Michigan campaign stop. “America and our system runs on consensus.”

But rather than the “altar call” Biden predicted Republicans would face if then-President Donald Trump were defeated, GOP congressional leaders find their rank-and-file still largely taking cues from the former president, and are trying to keep the peace by focusing on opposing Biden’s agenda.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., will arrive at the White House having just presided over a vote to purge Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., from his leadership team for her outspoken criticism of Trump. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said just last week that "100 percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration."

The White House insists that this week's meetings — Wednesday's with the bicameral leadership of Congress, and Thursday's with the lead Senate Republican negotiators — demonstrate Biden's commitment to seek compromise across the aisle, and represent just a fraction of the behind-the-scenes talks it expects to continue for weeks.

Biden is also minding divisions within the Democratic Party over his proposals, leading him to meet this week with Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, whose support is essential no matter what path the White House pursues.

The White House reiterated this week that it hopes for progress in negotiations by Memorial Day and that Biden is aiming to sign one or more bills into law this summer.

"He's got a long history of working with Republicans even when there are outside voices that are expressing skepticism," Louisa Terrell, the White House's director of legislative affairs, said in an interview.

When he was asked during the campaign whether bipartisanship was possible, Biden often pointed to his high-profile instances of collaboration with McConnell when he was vice president, such as breaking an impasse during the 2012 fiscal cliff negotiations and earning McConnell's support later for cancer funding. Biden said again last week that he is confident that he and his longtime Senate colleague can work together despite the rhetoric.

But the relationship has not been tested yet, as it might have been immediately had Democrats not won the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia in January. Top Biden officials began the presidential transition preparing for a Senate overseen by McConnell. Instead, they pressed ahead without him on the initial Covid-19 relief bill.

Since then, Biden and McConnell are known to have spoken only twice, once about Myanmar and once the day before Biden rolled out his infrastructure package. McConnell does not see Biden needing him yet, and the expectation is that if he eventually does, their relationship will become germane.

Right now, it is not. Republicans, including McConnell, see Biden's attempts to work with them as "a backup plan," not his first choice, said a person close to McConnell.

"Until it's clear that they don't have the votes on their side for some of these priorities, they're not going to need to really collaborate with us," the person said. "Going with a more moderate approach is not their first priority."

McConnell could get on board with an infrastructure bill that is very narrow in scope — focused on traditional roads and bridges — and that is paid for with provisions like user fees and a gas tax, not tax increases on corporations or on Americans making more than $400,000.

McConnell is closely watching how Democrats react to Biden's proposed tax increases and whether a number of them will balk. He has also keyed in on the shifting White House messaging about Biden's infrastructure plan — from initially billing it as a long-term, once-in-a-generation investment to more recently casting it as necessary given the unexpectedly sluggish April jobs report.

If Democrats ultimately decide to try to advance his package through reconciliation, a congressional process that would allow it to pass on a simple majority vote, talks with Republicans — led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia — would probably shut down, and he would struggle to find a single GOP vote, the McConnell ally said.

The Biden-McConnell relationship during the Obama administration was born out of necessity, "and that's the same path it's on this time," the ally said, adding: "They're not collaborating at this point. ... There's not really a lot there right now, because they don't need to talk to Mitch McConnell."

White House officials counter that the administration has been actively seeking GOP input since Biden took office, including holding scores of direct conversations between senior officials and Hill counterparts or lawmakers themselves.

Terrell said upward of 130 members of Congress have gone to the White House for meetings with Biden or other officials in the first 100 days of the administration — a number that would have been even higher had strict Covid-19 protocols not been in place.

"What the president brings to this job is there's no one who knows how to do these kinds of conversations and negotiations better than President Biden," she said. "The president knows how this works, and it's one-on-one relationships. We really go back to the fundamentals, that there are calls being made and discussions being had that are one on one."

The White House insists that Biden's only "red line" in negotiations over infrastructure is inaction, a point that speaks to the administration's confidence that it will have the political upper hand if Republicans in Congress remain united in opposition.

Celinda Lake, who was a top pollster for Biden's campaign, said public and private polling data both indicate that voters "are really in the mode of let's get it done, let's not just talk." A CBS News poll released late last month found that 58 percent of respondents felt that Biden was trying to work with Republicans, while just 39 percent felt that Republicans were making the effort to work with him.

Lake said one of the best-received lines from Biden's address to Congress was his call for lawmakers to pass the things they agree on — which she said stands as a warning against statements like McConnell's vow to block his agenda.

"People in hindsight see that as the modus operandi during the Obama years," she said, adding that it contributed to a cynicism in government that helped empower Trump.

"Trump was a bold change, just the wrong kind of change," she said.

While Trump still has outsize influence over the congressional GOP, the White House says it is looking to avoid playing into the internal dynamics.

"The focus of this meeting is not the future of the Republican Party, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. "They are neither seeking, nor is he offering, his perspective on that."

Amd as often as Biden expressed his interest in working with Republicans on the campaign trail, he at times coupled it with a warning that his hand would not always remain outstretched.

"Sometimes you can't do that," he said at the first Democratic primary debate nearly two years ago, speaking about potential cooperation with GOP colleagues. "Sometimes you just have to go out and beat them."

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