The most important relationship in D.C.? Biden and McConnell have a history

Allan Smith

The power dynamic in Washington, D.C., next year will be centered on two men with 80 years in office between them, a history of making deals and sparring and who sometimes even refer to each other as friends.

Heading into his administration, the relationship between President-elect Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is taking center stage. With a closely divided Senate, their personal dealings will be key to just how much, if any, of the new president's agenda can be accomplished.

Those who know both men say they have a mutual respect and built a level of trust between them over the years — which could be key in being able to facilitate agreements. But those familiar with the pair — and the current hyper-partisan state of politics — say that's only going to go so far.

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and later defense secretary under former President Barack Obama, told NBC News he thinks the Biden-McConnell dynamic "can work for the benefit of our country."

"They both know how to compromise," Hagel said. "They both know how to get things done. And I start with the fact that they trust each other, they like each other, and boy, that's important. And if you start there as the baseline, then you can work together. They're not going to agree on everything, of course not, but they can make things work and move this country forward."

McConnell, who was the only Republican senator in attendance at Beau Biden's funeral in 2015, called Biden "a real friend" and "a trusted partner" at the conclusion of the Obama administration.

Biden, who in 2011 appeared at the McConnell Center in Kentucky, both touted and distanced himself from his relationship with McConnell during the course of his presidential campaign, promoting his ability to cut deals with the top Republican while referring to him at a primary debate as "the biggest pain in my neck in a long time."

In the Obama administration, when negotiations between Senate Republicans and the White House were stalled, Biden — who served in the Senate for more than 30 years — was often tapped to get a deal across the finish line.

"I think that the president-elect believed that with cordiality and mutual respect, you can find a way to get to an understanding and to an agreement," said Don Graves, director of domestic and economic policy for then-Vice President Biden from 2014 to 2017. "There was never a point where I think, at least in that time, that I'm aware of, that they walked away having said things that they would regret later.”

Few have seen the two negotiate up close, as they have previously hammered out deals to extend the Bush tax cuts, raise the debt ceiling and pass the 21st Century Cures Act. Those talks often took place by phone and with only the two men and staffers present, sources familiar with their relationship told NBC News.

While the two men are hardly alike, a former senior McConnell aide told NBC News their personality differences were actually conducive to reaching agreements.

"If you know anything about Sen. McConnell, he is not a particularly verbose individual. He's very good at listening and, as he has said repeatedly, allows himself the luxury of the unexpressed thought," the former aide said. "And so, he's pretty quiet in these conversations. A lot of listening, interjecting where he feels like he needs to interject, but otherwise, kind of taking it all in."

"But President-elect Biden — or, at the time, Vice President Biden — is quite opposite," the person continued. "He is very talkative. He's a gregarious person by nature. And that was a useful kind of yin and yang relationship because his inclination to talk is how we found places of potential compromise."

McConnell and other Republicans for years made clear their preference for dealing with Biden over Obama. In 2016, McConnell said, "The guy to negotiate with in the administration was the vice president and not the president."

"What was clear at a senior level among congressional leadership is, and I can't tell you why, because it's nothing President Obama did — he was always gracious and inclusive with them — but there were some people who could not accept the fact he was president," Phil Schiliro, White House director of legislative affairs under Obama, told NBC News. "And that chilliness was always apparent. That didn't exist with Vice President Biden."

Reflecting on his dealings with Republicans, Obama this month expressed amusement with recent coverage of the relationship between Biden and McConnell.

"I'm enjoying reading now about how Joe Biden and Mitch have been friends for a long time," Obama told The Atlantic. "They've known each other for a long time. I have quotes from Biden about his interactions with Mitch McConnell."

Yet dealing directly with Biden was likely to put McConnell in good spirits. A source familiar with McConnell's engagement with both Biden when he was vice president and President Donald Trump described a stark contrast in McConnell's demeanor upon returning from negotiations with each man. The source told NBC News that was in part because Biden held realistic expectations of what McConnell could and could not get done while Trump did not.

"Everyone witnessed him coming back from those discussions," this person said of McConnell's colleagues following talks with Biden. "And they witnessed how he is when he comes back from those phone calls with the current president."

Yet Democrats and Republicans alike might not be feeling warm and fuzzy at the thought of Biden and McConnell cranking out backroom deals.

For Biden, Democrats have at times taken him to task over his dealings with McConnell, feeling the senator got the better of him — a sentiment Biden sought to slap down during the Democratic primary. Speaking recently with NBC News, Waleed Shahid of the progressive group Justice Democrats warned Biden of making "any sort of toxic deals with" McConnell. And some Senate Democrats are calling on Biden to make aggressive use of executive action to accomplish the more progressive elements of his agenda, bypassing McConnell altogether since they believe he's likely to be a roadblock for what the party wants to accomplish legislatively.

On the flip side, McConnell's caucus is likely to feature a number of senators who want to run for president in 2024 and are unlikely to be keen on making deals with Biden and handing Democrats any sort of victories. McConnell will weigh their needs with those of his members seeking re-election in 2022 and who may want to bring home bipartisan accomplishments to tout, as well as others more open to bipartisan dealmaking like Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

There are other variables still at play, most prominently which party controls the Senate after the Georgia runoff elections on Jan. 5, as well as what role Trump opts to take in Republican politics after he's out of office.

Looking back at the Obama presidency, the Republican playbook was to railroad as much of the president's agenda as possible. Some don't see that changing simply because an old friend is now in power.

"The Senate has changed dramatically since Joe Biden was a senator," said former Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and an NBC News and MSNBC political analyst, referring to a time of more collegiality and reaching across the aisle. "And I think he will be reminded of that on a constant basis."

With Trump refusing to acknowledge the election results, McConnell has yet to publicly point to Biden as the victor. When it comes to their future dealings, Biden has downplayed the importance of McConnell siding with Trump following the election.

The current dynamics lead observers to doubt the likelihood of any transformational legislation being passed, but they say where the Biden-McConnell personal relationship may pay off is in a more orderly process for must-pass bills, lessening the risk of government shutdowns. Democrats and Republicans who spoke with NBC News speculated the relationship could bear fruit in areas like infrastructure, tech, broadband expansion and new coronavirus relief.

“There are going to probably be some hard punches," a former aide to Senate Republican leadership told NBC News of future negotiations between Biden and McConnell. "But I think both of them are also very equipped to throw the punch and then move on. And I think part of it is they're both legislators at heart and they understand the game."