Enemies, a Love Story: Inside the 36-year Biden and McConnell Relationship

Enemies, a Love Story: Inside the 36-year Biden and McConnell RelationshipJanuary 22, 2021

The last time Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell faced off, Biden blinked first.

It was the winter of 2012. Then, as now, Democrats had just won a presidential election, had a narrow Senate majority, and Biden was earnestly proclaiming that the election would break the Republican “fever” of opposing the Democratic agenda.

The first test came immediately.

A cascade of deadlines on December 31, 2012, set up a world economy-level battle known as the “fiscal cliff.” Without any action by Congress, the next year would bring about $700 billion in combined tax hikes and budget cuts—extreme austerity measures that could cripple the recovering economy.

The Democratic Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, was willing to go over the cliff if McConnell didn’t agree to tax increases for the highest earners, one of Democrats’ signature campaign promises. Reid reasoned that if taxes were to rise automatically, McConnell would have to negotiate from a weakened position. Obama and Biden, however, feared an adverse reaction from the markets and a potential recession.

In a move that angered Reid, Biden took over the negotiations with Obama’s blessing. The outcome—a continuation of the Bush-era tax cuts with a relatively modest hike of 1.8 percent, weighted toward higher earners—was the kind of deal both negotiators could celebrate.

McConnell did, crowing to his fellow Republicans that “in a government controlled two-thirds by the Democrats, we got permanency for 99 percent of the Bush tax cuts.”

Biden did, boasting in a June 2019 debate that “I got Mitch McConnell to raise taxes $600 billion by raising the top rate.”

But many Democrats weren’t celebrating at all and still haven’t gotten over it. At the same 2019 debate, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado called it “a complete victory for the Tea Party. It extended the Bush tax cuts permanently. The Democratic Party had been running against that for 10 years.”

Now, eight years later, Biden and McConnell are entering a new phase of their 36-year relationship, and the Democratic left fears a repeat of the 2012 dynamic. Once again, their party wields most of the levers of government. They control the White House and Senate, albeit by the slimmest possible margin. Unlike 2012, they have a slim majority in the House, as well. Nonetheless, they seem destined to be bargaining for half a loaf, at best, for anything that requires 60 votes in the Senate, the level necessary to defeat a filibuster.

That’s because between them and their agenda stands McConnell, an acknowledged master of Senate procedures, famed for his ability to block presidential agendas.

Even as McConnell has seen some of his power ebb away—losing his Senate majority on the clay fields of Georgia, breaking with Donald Trump in the final days of his presidency—he still finds himself an essential figure in Biden’s Washington.

He is the key to the new president’s ability to turn the page from the Trump years. After years of legislative stasis, Biden is betting big that the Senate can return to the deal-making body he and McConnell came of age in. He hopes that he and his 2012 negotiating partner can plumb their shared history to locate a workable middle in a hyperpolarized time.

That’s a special challenge for McConnell, who is already at odds with the Trumpian wing of the Republican Party after defying Trump on Biden’s victory and even privately being open to impeaching him. Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Tuesday called for a new leader in the Senate and said McConnell had revealed himself to be the “king of the establishment Republicans.”

Even if McConnell wanted to cut deals with Biden, any compromise could further undermine his and his members’ position with the Republican base ahead of the 2022 midterms and the next presidential election. Several Republican senators eyeing their own runs in 2024 are already signaling unapologetic opposition to the entire Biden agenda.

Meanwhile, Biden’s allies are loudly insisting that finding common ground is possible and exactly what the American people want after the past decade of partisan warfare. The Biden team is aware that many in their own party are rolling their eyes but argue that it’s just the latest instance of the Democratic establishment underestimating Joe Biden.

“People said it was naive, you know, 18, 19 months ago as he was running, he was criticized for it. But you know what? It’s one of the reasons he won,” said a senior Biden White House adviser. Other Biden allies argue that voters will punish Republicans in 2022 if they look like they are being obstructionist in the middle of a crisis.

“A majority of senators have never served in a functional Senate,” said Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, a close Biden ally and friend. “This is the best chance the Senate will have in our lifetimes to get more functional, because we have an incoming president who knows and respects the Senate.”

But what constitutes functionality may be considerably less than Biden’s ambitious campaign promises.

“There are many examples of things that are just really beyond partisanship,” the senior adviser said. Asked for examples, the adviser pointed to second-tier issues like infrastructure spending and broadband internet access.

Jason Furman, who chaired President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers and is an occasional outside adviser to the Biden team, lowered expectations. “I’m not sure they can accomplish big things together, [but] I do think they can work together to keep the wheels on the bus,” he said.

McConnell, Furman believes, could be a willing partner in the basics—getting budgets passed in a timely manner, not playing chicken with the debt ceiling, and other incremental, good government measures.

Most skeptical of all is Obama himself, no fan of McConnell and someone who has chafed at the idea that his vice president might be able to achieve things that he himself could not.

“I’m enjoying reading now about how Joe Biden and Mitch have been friends for a long time,” the former president quipped to the Atlantic shortly after the 2020 election. “They’ve known each other for a long time.”

Washington friends aren’t normal friends. While some outliers like Ted Kennedy or John McCain genuinely relished their personal relationships across the aisle, the more enduring bond between long-serving senators is having belonged to such an exclusive club, and respect for its unwritten rules. Among these institutionalists, outsiders just don’t get it, whether they’re an earnest reformer like Obama or an imperious novice like Trump.

Biden, who joined the Senate in 1973, won his third term in the same year a former Senate staffer named Mitch McConnell won his first.

Like Biden, who began his Senate career by surprising the pundits with a razor-thin, upset win over two-term Republican Sen. J. Caleb Boggs, McConnell surprised much of the political world by edging out two-term Democrat Walter “Dee” Huddleston in the 1984 Senate race in Kentucky.

Despite being born nine months apart and sharing an interest in Senate history, the two men weren’t initially close during the 24 years they overlapped in the chamber, according to aides to both men.

“They are both good politicians, but they couldn’t be more different as politicians and that was from the get go,” said Janet Mullins Grissom, who managed McConnell’s 1984 race against Huddleston and was one of the Senate’s first female chiefs of staff when McConnell appointed her in 1985.

Biden was loquacious, while McConnell was a man of few words. Biden had the grip and grin of a salesman, while McConnell displayed a tactician’s discipline climbing up the leadership ladder. Biden was a people pleaser, while McConnell at times reveled in criticism, even decorating an entire wall of his office with negative newspaper cartoons about himself.

In high school and college, Biden had been a popular kid, a jock and senior class president. McConnell was more of a nerd—he wore an “I Like Ike” button in his 5th-grade school picture—but with an enormous drive to figure out how to win over his peers in elections.

When facing off against a popular kid to be his school’s senior-class president, McConnell outmaneuvered him by courting the endorsement of other popular students. “I was prepared to ask for their vote using the only tool in my arsenal, the one thing teenagers most desire. Flattery,” he wrote in his memoir.

But there are some similarities, too.

Both have clan loyalties. Biden’s are mainly to members of his family, such as his sister Val, who managed all seven of his political campaigns before 2020. In later years, his sons joined his inner circle, as well, along with longtime aides like Ted Kaufman and Mike Donilon.

McConnell regards his political team as family. “He has a posse,” said Mullins Grissom. “It’s like the opposite of Donald Trump, but I think that that speaks to the person, and that he is an incredibly, incredibly loyal person.” Aides say that, for decades after they have left his office, they still refer to him as “boss.” And while McConnell’s daughters seem to be liberals like their mother and shun his politics, his second wife, two-time GOP Cabinet member Elaine Chao, is a Washington power broker and a political partner as well as a romantic one.

“When I picked Elaine up at her apartment at the Watergate, I was taken by her beauty, and proud to have her on my arm that evening,” McConnell wrote of their first date, a party for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush hosted by Saudi Arabia’s ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Former aides note that Biden and McConnell are also similar in that they are ideologically flexible: Each started off as a moderate and then moved left and right with their parties.

In 1984, Biden ran ads supporting a budget freeze and a constitutional amendment to limit debt. McConnell had cultivated labor support and sought backing from abortion rights supporters.

McConnell’s aides even believed President Ronald Reagan was wary of endorsing him in 1984, both because he thought McConnell would lose to the moderate Democrat Huddleston and was not much more conservative than Huddleston, to boot. (When Reagan finally did offer an endorsement, he called him “Mitch O’Donnell.”)

“They’ve each sort of reversed themselves ideologically,” said Mullins Grissom. “Biden was incredibly conservative back in the ’80s and Mitch was much more of a moderate when he first came to the Senate.”

Another way to look at their metamorphoses is that they have their fingers on the pulses of their parties and stand at the very center of it. Biden is now calling for unprecedented deficit spending while McConnell has done more than any figure to curtail abortion rights by confirming conservative judges.

Riding the ups and downs of the judicial battles has been the ultimate shared experience for Biden and McConnell. From their very first years in the Senate, they each cultivated an interest in judicial matters and the Justice Department, where McConnell had worked during the Gerald R. Ford administration and which Biden helped oversee as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The great formative experience for both men, according to aides, came in 1987 with Reagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court of Robert Bork. The bearded, professorial Bork had overlapped with McConnell in the Justice Department but spent the bulk of his career at Yale Law School, delighting in faculty-lounge debates over Supreme Court precedents.

At the time, judicial confirmations turned largely on the nominees’ standing within the bar; senators saw themselves as making sure presidents chose people of sterling legal acumen, rather than plumbing the extent of their ideology. By that standard, Bork was golden, one of the most influential legal thinkers of his generation.

But many liberals were convinced that Reagan and his attorney general, Ed Meese, were taking advantage of that standard to load the bench with doctrinaire conservatives; it wasn’t Bork’s credentials that were problematic, it was his views on the law.

One of Biden’s role models, Sen. Ted Kennedy, took to the Senate floor to deliver a thunderous speech warning that Bork’s confirmation would result in a country “where women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters.” His scorched-earth rhetoric galvanized the left, turning the nomination into a grass-roots political battle.

The 44-year-old Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, hoping to use the high-profile hearings to prove his gravitas and jump-start his 1988 presidential campaign.

Initially, he backed away from Kennedy’s rhetoric. Asked whether he thought Bork was a radical ideologue, Biden said, “I have not characterized him that way in any speech that I have made, any comment I have made or anything else.”

But Biden, perhaps sensing that Kennedy had awakened the Democratic grassroots, soon committed to defeating Bork, albeit on his own terms.

“If there was an argument to be made against Bork in the Senate, it would have to be made to Republicans and Democrats in the political center,” he wrote in his 2007 memoir. “If we tried to make this a referendum on abortion rights, for example, we’d lose,” a stance that frustrated some liberal activists at the time.

Instead, he homed in on issues like married couples being able to buy contraceptives, grilling Bork on his past criticisms of the court’s reasoning in Griswold v. Connecticut, which declared that couples had a right to use contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

The effort to portray Bork as out of the mainstream worked, as Biden helped persuade moderate Republican Sen. Arlen Specter to join the Democrats in rejecting Bork’s nomination in the Judiciary Committee by a 9-5 vote, and later in the full Senate.

The Bork defeat had a profound impact on McConnell. It stung the freshman Republican as a clear violation of the guardrails that surrounded Senate’s “advise and consent” role in judicial appointments, which McConnell believed to be apolitical; in 1970, he had written in the Kentucky Law Journal that injecting politics into the Senate’s “advise and consent” is inappropriate.

“Even though the Senate has at various times made purely political decisions in its consideration of Supreme Court nominees, certainly it could not be successfully argued that this is an acceptable practice,” he wrote.

The actions of Kennedy, Biden and other Democrats had violated that principle. Biden argued that their moves against Bork were consistent with past judicial battles, citing some of the same cases McConnell had cited as shameful episodes not to be repeated. “We are once again confronted with a popular president’s determined attempt to bend the Supreme Court to his political ends,” Biden said in a floor speech in July 1987. “No one should dispute his right to try. But no one should dispute the Senate’s duty to respond.”

Mark Gitenstein, Biden’s chief counsel at the time, who later wrote a book on the Bork battle, said Biden’s explicit goal was preserving the legal precedents of the liberal Warren Court.

By defeating Bork and obliging Reagan to turn to the moderate Anthony Kennedy instead, Gitenstein says Biden’s mission was accomplished. “He shaped the court for 30 years, and it took 30 years to undo what he did,” he said of Biden.

Biden agreed, but also seemed to realize that he had done something to alter the way the Senate approached judicial nominations. Recalling the July 1987 speech, he wrote in his 2007 memoir that “there have not been many moments in my thirty four years in the senate when I believed I had helped change the course of the institution but as I came to the end of that speech, I had that feeling.”

He had changed the Senate and also changed Mitch McConnell.

Taking to the Senate floor in October 1987, a furious McConnell contended that the defeat of Bork meant the Senate should be honest about its new standard for Supreme Court picks.

“It means for a majority of the Senate that we’re going to make this decision on any basis we darn well please, and if we object as a matter of philosophical persuasion that the president is trying to move the court to the right or to the left, we’ll just stand up and say that and vote accordingly,” McConnell said ruefully. “We may not be able to pick the nominee. but we can sure shoot ’em down. We can sure shoot ’em down.”

Citing his own 1970 law review article, McConnell said he would prefer the version of advise and consent that was narrowly focused on factors like competence and integrity over the more partisan version. “Frankly, the senator from Kentucky thinks that’s the way it ought to be,” he said before allowing a smirk. “But if I am nothing else, I am practical.”

That was both a warning and a vow. McConnell adapted and waged an unrelenting, ultimately successful fight to remake the judiciary and the Supreme Court along conservative lines.

“They didn’t win the Bork fight until the [Brett] Kavanaugh fight,” Gitenstein said.

Biden’s and McConnell’s paths crossed only occasionally over the next 20 years, as Biden slowly shifted the focus of his Senate career toward foreign policy and became chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. He considered running for president again in 2004 and then ran and lost in 2008.

With the exception of being a fierce advocate for Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, McConnell largely stayed out of foreign affairs unless it affected domestic politics. In the lead-up to the 2006 midterms, he pressed George W. Bush to bring some troops home from Iraq. According to Bush’s account, he snapped back at McConnell, “I will not withdraw troops unless military conditions warrant.” Bush later wrote, “I made it clear I would set troop levels to achieve victory in Iraq, not victory at the polls.”

The Republican drubbing in 2006 came just as McConnell was securing the leadership of his party conference, making him the Senate minority leader. In 2009, he famously declared his chief ambition was to make Obama a one-term president unless Obama stopped pushing ambitious progressive legislation.

He did not succeed. In the 2012 elections, not only was Obama reelected, but Democrats maintained control of the Senate and kept McConnell relegated to being minority leader. But McConnell didn’t see the election results as a reason to stop resisting and just allow the Democrats to pass their agenda. The Democrats needed to play ball with him to get over the 60-vote hump needed to break a Senate filibuster and pass legislation to avoid the fiscal cliff.

Reid, the Democratic majority leader who had tangled bitterly with McConnell for six years, was determined to match McConnell’s hardball tactics with some of his own.

“From [Reid’s] perspective, the cliff was just sort of an American problem or a world problem, and that Democrats shouldn’t have to sort of offer something up to Republicans because they were holding it hostage,” recalled a former Democratic leadership aide involved in the negotiations.

McConnell and Reid dug in their heels and on December 30, there was no sign of a deal.

“I wanted to go over the cliff,” Reid said later. “I thought that would have been the best thing to do, because the conversation would not have been about raising taxes, which it became, it would have been about lowering taxes.”

But McConnell’s aides said they began to realize Reid was ready to go over the cliff. “We also knew, and we were right about this, that the administration probably wasn’t so cavalier about visiting economic ruin on millions of people as a negotiating tool,” said a McConnell aide involved in the negotiations.

McConnell reached out to Biden. He got his voicemail. “Is there anyone over there who knows how to make a deal?” McConnell said. Obama agreed to have Biden take over the negotiations. With Reid seething in the wings, Biden and McConnell began crafting a compromise.

At a delicate point in their discussions, Biden suggested McConnell talk directly to Obama. But the usually unflappable Obama lost his temper and called McConnell’s top policy aide, Rohit Kumar, a “jerk.”

“That conversation went nowhere,” McConnell later recalled. Biden was again dispatched to lower the temperature and the pair clinched a deal to avoid going over the cliff—one that thrilled most Republicans. “Deal, deal, deal,” McCain cheered.

Many Senate Democrats saw it as a win for the Republicans.

“It was a hard sell,” acknowledged Biden’s protégé, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).

“Reid was furious—he was undercut and then Biden cut a terrible deal and then took a victory lap for it,” recalled Adam Jentleson, Reid’s deputy chief of staff at the time and author of the new book, “Kill Switch,” which argues Senate Democrats should embrace his former boss’ approach to McConnell.

Jentleson wasn’t alone.

“For lack of a better phrase, that was just not cool,” said another Reid aide. “Not cool on politics. Not cool on substance.” Reid was so mad that nine months later, when Senate Republicans shut down the government over the issue of Obamacare funding, Reid told the Obama administration to keep Biden away. Reid declined to comment.

He also insisted that Biden come down to the Senate to personally explain the fiscal cliff deal to Democratic senators. He wasn’t going to sell a deal he didn’t believe in. Asked by reporters at the time what he told his former colleagues, Biden responded, “I said ‘This is Joe Biden and I’m your buddy.’”

It was a telling comment. Biden’s willingness to go the extra mile for a compromise that many senators distrusted, some Obama aides said, was evidence of both his political adroitness and his desire to move the ball forward even a few inches in the face of a backlash from his own party.

“He knew at the end of the day that someone had to be held responsible for the disappointing parts of the deal,” said Furman. “He was explicitly and openly willing to be that person. Many others were posturing, but he was willing to absorb some of it because that’s what it took.”

But many Democrats still see the episode as evidence that Biden just isn’t up to the task of facing off against McConnell. And many in McConnell’s world agree. They just think their boss is smarter.

Those dramatic 36 hours of political and economic brinkmanship in 2012 reverberate in 2021 as the two 78-year-old Senate bulls again find themselves facing off. The two men are now the leaders of their respective parties at a moment of violent partisanship, congressional dysfunction, and a once-in-a-century health and economic crisis.

A central promise of the Biden presidency is that he will be able to succeed where Obama failed in negotiating with Congress. Some Biden aides describe their boss as a “master legislator.” To the many doubters in his own party who were frustrated during the Obama years, he has publicly declared “you’re going to be surprised.”

Much like Obama’s “change we can believe in” promises in 2008, Biden has made restoring some bipartisanship the marker of his own success. Just as in the Obama years, that requires buy-in from McConnell. And veterans of the eight years, including Obama himself, are skeptical. Some McConnell aides are, too.

That’s because they reject the Beltway narrative that McConnell would have been more open to compromise during the Obama years if the president had been a back-slapper, like his vice president.

“The issue with Republicans is not that I didn’t court them enough,” Obama insisted on his recent book tour. “The issue was not a lack of schmoozing. The issue was that they found it politically advantageous to demonize me and the Democratic Party.”

Don “Stew” Stewart, McConnell’s deputy chief of staff at the time, agrees with Obama.

“It’s not personality, it’s policy,” he explained. “None of the beers or whiskey or anything matters. If your policy doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how many parties you have. If your policy stinks, it’s not going anywhere.” More bourbons with McConnell would not have made a difference, he said.

As some former McConnell aides note, McConnell isn’t much of a schmoozer himself.

A senior Obama administration official agreed: “I don’t think the fact that [McConnell] has a good relationship with Biden, a better relationship with Biden, or a worse relationship with Biden is going to affect that he’s going to do what he’s going to do.”

The official continued that “this conventional wisdom that [Obama] stiffed Republicans on a social basis, and that caused their animosity towards him, I think it’s just fiction. I think that Biden will run into the same thing, ultimately.”

Even if Biden does have more success, they argue, it will be partly because of race. Many Obama officials have long contended that the backlash to the first Black president among parts of the GOP base was a large reason why Republicans resisted working with him. In his recent memoir, Obama argued this was the case with McConnell and was partly why he sent Biden to negotiate.

“[I]n McConnell’s mind, negotiations with the vice president didn’t inflame the Republican base in quite the same way that any appearance of cooperating with (Black, Muslim socialist) Obama was bound to do,” Obama wrote.

McConnell’s aides fumed this winter when reports of Obama’s remarks spread in November.

“That was so offensive,” said Mullins Grissom. “Biden understood the art of the deal and Obama did not.”

Former McConnell aides and McConnell himself point out that he voted for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964 because of Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act. Decades later, in the Senate, he stood up to Reagan and many in his own party to support sanctioning South Africa for its apartheid regime.

McConnell’s racial politics have been forward-looking by the standards of Southern Republicans but have not been without blemishes, either. In the same 1970 article he cited on the Senate floor during the Bork fight, McConnell wrote that “History has judged Chief Justice Taney as among the most outstanding of American jurists, his tribulations prior to confirmation being completely overshadowed by an exceptional career.”

Taney was the author and the orchestrator of the infamous Dred Scott decision that validated the Fugitive Slave Act and ruled that African Americans could never have the full protections of U.S. citizenship. And McConnell has changed his views: “Justice Taney was the author of one of the worst decisions (the Dred Scott decision) in American history,” McConnell said in a statement to POLITICO. “To the extent that I ever praised him, that was a mistake.”

One person who seems to agree with Obama is McConnell’s first wife, Sherrill Redmon. “Many people wonder why Republican legislators are so unrelenting on President Obama,” she wrote on Facebook in 2012. “Frederick Douglass gave us the answer many years ago. How prophetic!,” she wrote before posting Douglass’ quote that “though the colored man is no longer subject to barter and sale, he is surrounded by an adverse settlement which fetters all his movements. In his downward course he meets with no resistance, but his course upward is resented and resisted at every step of his progress.”

But McConnell himself argues—and some Obama aides quietly agree—that Biden is just better at congressional deal-making. In his 2016 memoir, McConnell is unsparing in his criticism of Obama, calling him “arrogant,” “uncooperative” and “like the kid in your class who exerts a hell of a lot of effort making sure everyone thinks he’s the smartest one.”

McConnell much preferred working with Biden and heaped praise on him in his book, often at Obama’s expense. “I could tell him how far we could go, and he would reciprocate, unlike Obama,” McConnell wrote. McConnell would also be the only Republican senator to attend the funeral of Biden’s beloved eldest son, Beau, in 2015. And in December 2016, McConnell took to the Senate floor to pay tribute to then-outgoing Vice President Biden.

“I don’t always agree with him, but I do trust him implicitly. He doesn’t break his word,” McConnell said. “He doesn’t waste time telling me why I’m wrong. He gets down to brass tacks and keeps sight of the stakes.”

In today’s Washington, that kind of praise across the aisle is as close to friendship as most politicians can get. But whether it breaks any political logjams remains unclear.

“There’s no overwhelming mandate for the Democratic agenda and a lot of people that voted for Biden are uncomfortable with some of the Democratic agenda,” reasoned a former senior Obama administration official. “So you take that, you take how divided it is, you take the country getting more and more divided, you got Trump out there causing problems. At best, you could only have, you know, incremental progress and principled compromise on certain issues.”

But Biden’s top aides say their efforts are sincere and are optimistic. “God bless him. I’m glad he’s got a positive attitude,” said the official. “I think, particularly in this environment, we got no choice now.”

Many progressive Democrats argue that they should simply eliminate the Senate filibuster rule, which would enable to Democrats to pass their agenda with no Republican votes. Biden has so far appeared resistant to that idea, but allies say that doesn’t mean he’s ruled it out. “We are in a dire crisis and he is going to sit by for four years and see his entire agenda stymied,” Coons said.

McConnell has fought to preserve the filibuster rule and seems unwilling to offer many concessions in return. His willingness to deal is uncertain and will be determined first and foremost by what he feels is best for his members running in 2022 and 2024. At first blush, the Republicans have less to gain than the Democrats from settling longstanding disputes. Plus, McConnell’s former aides argue, it’s up to Biden whether he will spurn the left wing of his party and pursue agenda items that can realistically get bipartisan support.

But Biden’s team believes there are some hopeful tea leaves in McConnell and his wife’s repudiation of Trump after the 45th president sicced his supporters on the Senate chamber itself earlier this month.

McConnell’s two speeches condemning Trump and his congressional enablers on the Senate floor during the counting of the Electoral College vote struck Biden advisers as sincere and a sign that he still cares about the club’s unwritten rules. Biden and McConnell have been in frequent contact since Election Day as well, the new president’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, said last week.

But former McConnell aides warn that it’s a common mistake to assume that other Republicans will always fall into line behind the Kentucky senator. His great skill is understanding all his members’ needs, not necessarily in twisting arms, they say. So other Republicans will have to step up, as well.

“The Senate is only as strong and independent as the members that make it up,” said one former senior McConnell aide. “So many of them are just a whole bunch of pussies. Like ‘What if the base gets angry?’ or ‘Oh, it’s too hard.’ You want this job? Work, build a coalition, work with your chairman and ranking member, build people behind this. Get it f—ing going.”

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