Why President Biden opted for a Senate that no longer exists

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Why President Biden opted for a Senate that no longer exists


“I am proud to say that I am a Senate man,” wrote Joe Biden in 2007, in his thirty-fourth year on Capitol Hill. “The job plays to my strengths and my deepest beliefs.” Even by Senate standards, Biden boasted about the club and its clichés. In his memoir Promises to Keep, he cited the old straw that George Washington hailed the institution as a “chilling” body, a saucer into which the overboiled passions of the moment could dissolve. (Senators still cite it today, although historians are not sure Washington ever said it.)

His belief in the Senate’s potential was not just empty pride. Since Biden was first elected to that chamber by Delaware in 1972, he has witnessed a multitude of instances of feuding over big issues, where senators ultimately accepted personal political risk in the name of a larger national goal. In 1977, across the aisle, President Jimmy Carter appealed to Howard Baker of Tennessee, the Republican minority leader, to support a treaty bringing local control of the Panama Canal (a move aimed primarily at improving Washington’s dealings with Latin America ). Baker’s staff warned him that working with Carter would derail his dream of becoming president, but Baker, it is said, weighed the national security implications and replied, “So be it.” He supported the treaty and there was no Baker presidency. (As a consolation prize, Baker is referred to as the “Great Conciliator.”)

As infighting erupted within the parties, senators spoke admiringly of those who had found their way to manage their ambitions within the larger goals. In 1993, during Bill Clinton’s first year in office, he urged Democrats to support higher taxes in his economic program, but Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey stood his ground. Clinton, in a mundane, private phone call, accused him of dooming the prospects of his presidency. Kerrey was angered by this but eventually supported Clinton, saying in a Senate speech, “I could not and should not vote to bring down your presidency.”

As Biden entered the presidential race in 2019, he knew firsthand how far the Senate had strayed from its self-image in the era of Republican leader Mitch McConnell. As vice president, he had witnessed McConnell’s famous promise to obstruct the Obama administration at every turn; his blocking of Barack Obama’s right to appoint a Supreme Court Justice; its exponential growth of the use of the filibuster. But that evidence competed in Biden’s accounting with his own story of finding a way to work with unsavory and unruly colleagues, including segregationists Strom Thurmond and James Eastland. Biden had even found a way to a deal with McConnell in the closing days of 2012, agreeing to keep tax cuts in place to avert the impending Republican default on the debt ceiling. It had irritated other Democrats but served as new evidence for Biden’s claim that no one is truly immune from negotiations.

As the 2020 election approached, Biden stuck to his claim that he could convince enough of his opponents to join him, even as Trump-era toxicity continued to infect Washington. “All you need,” he told me in an interview this summer, “is three, or four or five Republicans who’ve seen the light of day a little bit.” He added, “I don’t think you do underestimate the impact of Trump’s absence. The thirst for revenge, the pettiness, the willingness to pursue people with vendettas at your own expense.”

It was a long, costly year in the White House before Biden admitted he had wrongly bet on the Senate he once knew. On Wednesday, during a marathon press conference on the eve of his first anniversary in office, Biden conceded, “I didn’t expect there would be such a relentless effort to make sure the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t do anything.” get it done.” He revisited the subject several times in conversations with reporters in the East Room of the White House. “My buddy John McCain is gone,” he said, lamenting the absence of the late Arizona senator, who had been a frequent partner in legislation and, not coincidentally, one of the few Republican senators to ever question Donald’s defamation and atrocities had trump. At one point, Biden asked the audience a question that was at least as much on his mind: “Have you ever thought that one man in office could intimidate an entire party where they are unwilling to vote against?” what he thought should be taken for fear of being defeated in a primary?

There were, of course, some who had urged Biden not to believe he could win Republican support. During the campaign, a Democrat who had served in the White House asked about Biden’s assumptions: “Does he see his role as someone who can bring in the Never Trumpers and build a bipartisan consensus? I know from experience that this is a trap. We went straight in. Your people lose faith, the Republicans never give you credit, you waste a lot of time – and you end up in the Tea Party.”

In the end, of course, it wasn’t just Republicans who dashed Biden’s Senate hopes; Members of his own party lent a hand. For months, Biden and other Democratic leaders have spoiled and spoiled the dissidents inside, chiefly West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema — scrapping proposal after proposal to meet their demands for infrastructure, voting rights and Social Security. net programs under the Build Back Better plan. In public, the Senate colleagues avoided criticizing the objectors, who would ultimately be needed for future votes. Manchin fueled this belief, telling reporters, in a faint echo of Kerrey’s 1993 comments, that despite his objections, he intended “to make Joe Biden successful.” As Democrats pushed to finalize the Build Back Better plan, patience was running out. “You put your stamp on this bill, you drastically reduced its cost,” Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, told CNN, referring to Manchin. “Now close the deal.” Instead, Manchin killed it and announced on Fox News that he could never support the law in its written form.

In that light, it was appropriate planning that, while Biden sat before reporters at the White House on Wednesday, Manchin spoke in the Senate to prevent his party from changing Senate rules to allow vote-on-law legislation in the face of Republican opposition . All fifty Republicans later voted against the Voting Rights Act, but Manchin suggested no way out; on the contrary, he urged his colleagues to adopt high-pitched paralysis. “The most important rule of the Senate is the one that is unwritten,” he said. “It’s the rule of self-control, which we have very little left of.” By the end of the evening, Manchin and Sinema had voted with Republicans against changing the rules, a moment that seemed to crystallize the frustrations of Biden’s first year dealing with the Senate he adores.



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