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Biden reaches out to some Republicans on Capitol Hill — but not party leaders

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell says he’s spoken with President Joe Biden just once since he took office.

“We just talked about Burma — an issue that I’ve had a long-time interest in,” McConnell told CNN of their February conversation, though he previously said they also spoke about the budget process and Covid relief during that call.

But the White House has a different account.

“He speaks with him regularly,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday, declining to elaborate other than to mention a “long friendship” between the two men who served for more than two decades together in the Senate.

When pressed for more details, Psaki demurred, saying, “I don’t have any more calls, I don’t think, to read out for you, which we will not make a case of doing.”

To top Republicans on Capitol Hill, the discrepancy underlines the argument they’ve been making: That despite his promise to unify Washington, the new President has abandoned his campaign pledge to court the other side. And even as they unify in opposition to his agenda, while plotting to take back Congress in the midterms next year, Republicans argue the lack of outreach feeds into their case that the new President is beholden to the most liberal elements of his party and has little interest in finding consensus with the GOP.

“The story is what happened to the Joe Biden of old,” said South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, whom Biden called a “personal disappointment” in December. The two haven’t spoken since he took office.

While Biden has been in touch with key Republican swing votes in the Senate (Susan Collins of Maine), had a cordial call with the most senior GOP senator in recent weeks (Chuck Grassley of Iowa), and also been in touch on China issues with one of his sharpest GOP critics (John Cornyn of Texas), his outreach to party leaders has been scant, according to GOP senators and aides.

The new President hasn’t spoken with House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy since Inauguration Day. He has yet to speak to the House’s No. 2 Republican, Steve Scalise, since he became President, nor has he reached out to the Senate’s GOP whip, John Thune.

Yet Biden also hasn’t spoken to a Senate Republican who could be open to deal-cutting on legislation dealing with gun violence: Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

“Nope,” Toomey, whose bipartisan plan to expand background checks on firearm sales has been stalled for eight years, said when asked if he had heard from Biden on the issue.

Has he heard from Biden at all since January 20?

“No,” Toomey said.

Before taking office, Biden often boasted about his ability to work across the aisle, even in a deeply-divided Washington. He pointedly told skeptics during the transition: “Watch me. Watch me.”

But since then, in the wake of Republicans standing in lockstep against his agenda, a new definition of bipartisanship has emerged. Privately, Biden told Senate Democrats in a virtual meeting this week that bipartisanship is defined by what voters say, not what McConnell thinks, according to a person familiar with his remarks. And his aides have echoed a similar sentiment.

“He doesn’t believe that bipartisanship is defined by zip code here,” Psaki said Wednesday at the White House briefing. “He believes it’s on how we can deliver relief to the American people.”

Collins says she has suggested that Biden meet once a week with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and McConnell, as was the case when top party leaders regularly met with then-President George W. Bush when the chamber was in session during his time in office. That has not been the case so far.

“I would love to see that re-initiated,” Collins said.

Democrats argue that more Republicans need to show some willingness to cooperate, while noting that many Republicans even refused to recognize the legitimacy of Biden’s victory for months.

White House officials says they have been forced to limit larger meetings due to the pandemic, but they also note there have been regular bipartisan meetings in addition to outreach with senior aides, including one recently on infrastructure. In his first meeting with lawmakers, Biden invited a group of 10 GOP senators to discuss Covid-19 relief, although he later moved ahead with a $1.9 trillion relief plan backed by just Democrats after rejecting the Republican approach as inadequate.

Democrats say that the President and his top aides have been in regular communication with lawmakers on both sides, and argue the approach is vastly different than that of Donald Trump, who as President spoke to mainly the most loyal of Republicans and didn’t speak with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the final 15 months of his term.

“The very first group that he invited to the White House was 10 Republicans,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who occupies the Senate seat Biden held for 36 years.

Yet some Republicans who have reached out to the White House say they’ve heard nothing back — whether it’s McCarthy’s ask for a meeting on immigration or Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican, on energy policy.

“The promise to be bipartisan has been probably one of the emptiest political promises I have ever seen in my lifetime,” Cramer said.

But while many Republicans haven’t heard from the President, some have gotten his attention.

Some Republicans have spoken with the President

Biden has picked up the phone to speak with some Republicans, including Grassley, the most senior Senate Republican, who told CNN he and Biden had a “friendly conversation” that lasted about two minutes a few weeks back. Grassley told him they could work together to reduce prescription drug prices.

Asked what prompted the call, Grassley said of his former Senate colleague: “I did something he liked.”

Grassley added: “He’s got abysmal policies but you can’t help but like the guy.”

Collins, a key centrist Republican who worked with Biden for many years when he was in the Senate, said she has had several good conversations with Biden since he became President.

“My personal conversations with the President have been both productive, gracious, welcoming,” she said, while acknowledging some of her early interactions with some of Biden’s top staff were frustrating, although she believes those issues are behind them now after she had a “constructive conversation” with Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain last week.

Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman has attended two meetings with Biden — one on the Covid relief bill and a second to discuss legislation pushing back on China.

“I wish they would be more interested in working with us on a bipartisan basis. If you think about it. What have we done on a bipartisan basis? Really nothing,” said Portman who noted that he’s voted for most of Biden’s nominees, something he considers a bipartisan act. “I’m talking to the White House trying to encourage them to do more.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, was at the White House’s infrastructure meeting, in addition to the one about Covid-relief. She said she’s satisfied with the White House outreach, but when asked if she were satisfied the President and his team were listening to her suggestions, she let out a laugh.

“That’s a different question,” Capito said.

Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, echoed that Biden’s outreach has been good on China issues and concerns about vulnerable supply chains. He attended one “good meeting” on that issue at the White House that Biden attended. Cornyn said there’s been “good follow through” from the White House on that too.

He said he suspects the people around Biden are worried former President Barack Obama tried to do too much outreach to Republicans and it limited their ability to get their agenda passed.

“That’s the only thing that we’ve seen bipartisan outreach,” he said. “In a 50-50 Senate, it is true they can jam some things, but I think they are going to be leaving a lot of things on the table that they might otherwise be able to do.”

White House officials would not discuss the number of interactions Biden has had with Republicans of late.

“We’re obviously not going to read out all those calls, and I expect that will continue,” Psaki said of the outreach.

But after McConnell said in a Fox News interview Wednesday that he has not spoken with Biden “since he was sworn in,” the GOP leader later clarified to CNN he only spoke with Biden on the issue of Burma.

Later in the day when asked about Psaki’s claim of his regular discussions with the President, McConnell walked into the chamber and didn’t answer.

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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