Roar writer Hanna Pham examines the position of minority leader Mitch McConnell during the Biden presidency.
The Grim Reaper is the representation of death; he appears as a skeleton in a black cloak, gripping a scythe. It is also a nickname McConnell embraces thoroughly, as any bill sent to him from the democratically controlled congress would be dead-on-arrival. This nickname proved to be apt: at one point, McConnell was planning on rejecting about 395 bills sitting in the Senate. However, this is a result of his position as Senate majority leader under both the Obama and Trump presidencies. McConnell may not be able to exert his political prowess as the grim reaper when the Senate is controlled by Democrats and McConnell’s role as majority leader is taken over by Chuck Schumer. And, of course, during Joe Biden’s presidency.
While initially reluctant to address Biden’s victory in November, McConnell has since come out and officially congratulated Biden on his win. Several questions have arisen following the election of Joe Biden: what will the nature of McConnell’s relationship with President Joe Biden be like? Will McConnell continue to fight a relentless battle against the passing of Democratic bills?
In order to make an informed hypothesis on how President Biden and Mitch McConnell will work together, it is necessary to trace and analyse the latter man’s long political relationship with Biden, all the way to his support for Trump as Senate majority leader.
Despite clear ideological differences between the two, McConnell and Biden have had a decent working relationship throughout their decades together in the Senate: “It’s a long relationship and they understand each other”, stated a Republican senator. Since their initial appointment as senators – Biden won 1974, with McConnell following suit in 1984 – they have co-sponsored 318 bills. In addition to their work in the Senate together, they have also been recorded speaking fondly of one another. While it might be a stretch to label this a friendship, it is important to note that McConnell was the only Senate Republican to attend the funeral of Biden’s son Beau in 2015.
McConnell’s ultimate goal during the Obama administration was to “make him a one-term president”. As evidenced by this statement, McConnell was not an avid fan of Obama, believing he was “too preachy and arrogant”. While McConnell was open about his disdain for working with Obama, how did that sentiment translate to his political relationship with Biden? McConnell viewed Biden as his go-to for negotiations and dealings, not only because of his disdain towards Obama but due to their 30 years of collaboration in the Senate. According to Rohit Kumar, McConnell’s domestic policy adviser during the Obama presidency, “Biden handles negotiations in a very practical manner, which were superior to Obama’s”.
Throughout Biden’s vice presidency, he and McConnell were able to negotiate their way out of several potential catastrophes. In 2010 they prevented a government shutdown and averted an attempt by the Tea Party Republicans to raise the debt limit. Most notably, the two avoided an economic catastrophe by agreeing to raise taxes for anyone who makes over $400,000 a year. It must be noted that Biden was criticised for allowing McConnell to get most of what he wanted from this deal. All in all, though, as Kumar says: “What binds McConnell and Biden is a shared belief that to do anything meaningful in Washington, it has to be bipartisan”.
Off of the Senate floor, it is evident that the two held a modicum of respect for each other. In 2011, the two travelled to Kentucky to deliver a joint lecture at the University of Louisville. As an introduction to the talk, Biden stated: “You want to see whether or not a Republican and Democrat really like each other? Well, I’m here to tell you we do”. Additionally, right before Biden relinquished the vice presidency in 2016, McConnell paid him a heart-warming tribute. He called Biden “his old friend” and “trusted partner”. He also appreciated how Biden “got down to the brass tacks”, keeping the stakes in sight. He concluded by saying that “get Joe on the phone” meant “it is time to get serious”.
Furthermore, as a testament to how close the two were, McConnell renamed “the NIH’s cancer initiatives” after Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer. It is evident that Biden and McConnell share a political relationship based on trust, compromise, and negotiation.
McConnell’s character and role as Senate majority leader under the Trump administration adds another element of mystery into how he and Biden will get along. Their political relationship was remarkedly different to the one McConnell shares with Biden. Rather than being built on mutual respect and trust, McConnell used his role as majority leader to support Trump and push his own political agenda; Many of the items on his to-do list, such as packing courts with as many conservative judges as possible, coincided with Trump’s. If anything, McConnell’s enduring legacy is how successful he was in transforming the judicial branch into a largely conservative-run institution.
The bipartisanship he once shared with Biden appears to have been replaced by assertions of power and control, alongside the aforementioned goal of court-packing. On the campaign trail, when Biden proposed that he would be able to work well with McConnell, he was met with laughter from Democrat senators. As alluded to by his grim reaper nickname, McConnell blocked every attempt possible to push even a hair of the Democratic agenda through the Senate. He famously does not get on well with Democratic senators, saying that he is “a destructive force hellbent on changing the Senate force”.
Democrats are erring on the side of caution regarding how effective their agenda will be in light of the working relations between Biden and McConnell. On the one hand, Biden and McConnell do have a long history of working together which could prove to be useful in pushing a Democratic agenda. On the other, it was evident during Biden’s vice presidency, and even more so during Trump’s time in office, that McConnell was an obstructionist to all things Democrat who most notoriously blocked Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, citing the incoming 2016 election as reasoning. However, one month before the 2020 Presidential election, he allowed Amy Coney Barrett to be appointed to the Supreme Court. Furthermore, McConnell asserts his intent to not pass Democratic policies regarding issues such as climate change and healthcare, regardless of Biden’s win.
It is difficult to make an acute prediction of how McConnell and Biden’s relationship will pan out over the next four years. The belief in bipartisanship and negotiation that McConnell and Biden claim to have may indicate that McConnell will prove useful to Biden in pushing a Democratic agenda in the Senate. Yet, the past four years under the Trump administration illustrated McConnell’s dissonance towards anything remotely Democratic. Taking into consideration the fact that McConnell will be the minority rather than majority leader in the Senate, the one fact that is certain during the Biden presidency is that McConnell will have much less power with which to play the Grim Reaper.