Sen. Joe Biden spent many long nights in budget negotiations with fellow Democrats and Republicans, and led boisterous debates in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on how to respond to developments abroad. The verbal battles were often heated, but rarely personal, and tended to end with some kind of compromise that left few lawmakers either completely happy or completely disappointed.
That Senate, a reflection of what has been called the world’s greatest deliberative body, is largely gone. President Joe Biden hopes he can bring it back, and the future of his legislative agenda may depend on it.
“Unity requires you to eliminate the vitriol, make anything you disagree with about the other person’s personality. We have to get rid of that,” Biden told reporters yesterday, noting that he would avoid “ad hominem attacks” on lawmakers.
“We’re going to argue like hell. I’ve been there,” he added, chuckling at the memory of his 36 years as a senator from Delaware. “I think we can do it in a way that gets things done for the American people.”
But “God knows where things go,” he remarked.
Sen. Joe Biden speaks to members of the Senate Judiciary committee including Ted Kennedy, center, and Sen. Strom Thurmond, third from left, during a break in the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee William Rehnquist in 1986.(Lana Harris/AP)
It may be one of Biden‘s toughest goals, and the most essential to changing a new normal in the capital, where there is little substantive debate on issues in Congress and a great deal of finger-pointing and strategizing to damage the other party.
“I think the Senate we knew was gone before Jan. 6,” when insurrectionists breached the Capitol, “and it may return after Jan. 6. Some of the folks that are there to be loud, but not legislate, are going to be sidelined,” says Bryan DeAngelis, managing director of Hamilton Place Strategies and a former staffer to Sen. Chris Dodd, a Democrat of Connecticut. Some senators have already turned on two of their colleagues – GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri – for leading an effort to object to the Electoral College results, calling for an ethics investigation of the two lawmakers.
Biden has certain advantages not enjoyed by former President Barack Obama, including long relationships with some sitting senators. Biden has also made clear his respect for the Senate as an independent power and voice, a switch from President Donald Trump, who often spoke of the GOP-run Senate as though its members were his middle managers.
But he also faces a Republican Party eager to show its strength even though it is in the minority in both chambers of Congress. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has shown his veteran, institutionalist side – dressing down some of his colleagues, for example, when they moved to challenge the election results on the Senate floor.
That same McConnell for nearly a week held up the basic work of the Senate by refusing to agree to the so-called “Organizing Resolution” – a simple document that allows for the assignment of committee chairs and other Senate housekeeping – unless Democrats agree to get rid of the filibuster.
Political Cartoons on Joe Biden
Democrats don’t have the votes at the moment to kill the filibuster, which allows a minority of lawmakers to prevent a vote on a bill with the threat of endless debate, and Biden himself has said he does not want the legislative tool to be tossed. On Monday night, McConnell issued a statement reflecting the common knowledge that two Senate Democrats want to keep the filibuster, and said he’d agree to move forward with an organizing resolution.
However, there is still strong pressure from the progressive wing of the party to get rid of the tactic, which critics argue is an anachronistic option suited for a time when senators would only sparingly filibuster to force compromise. Now, they argue, the filibuster is an almost automatic threat that keeps anything of substance from passing through the Senate, where 60 votes are required to end a filibuster.
“The Time Has Come,” says a massive billboard in Times Square, paid for by the progressive group Just Democracy. “Senator Schumer, Abolish the Filibuster.”
There appears to be some frustration among even the most old-school members of the Senate, including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. “If this filibuster has now become so common in the Senate that we can’t act, that we just sit there helpless, shame on us,” Durbin told “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “Of course, we should consider a change in [the] rule under those circumstances.”
Joel Payne, a Democratic consultant who worked for former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, says a lot of former skeptics are questioning whether the Senate should ultimately scrap the filibuster, one of the last relics of the Senate of old.
There are “a lot of institutionalists, either staff, or members of the chamber, who just don’t feel like it’s appropriate for Democrats to disarm themselves in a way that Republicans would never do,” Payne says, predicting that the filibuster really could be eliminated this year.
That’s clearly not the approach desired by Biden, who repeatedly has rejected suggestions that he is “naive” for thinking he could restore a more cooperative tone in Washington lawmaking. He’s already changed Trumpian norms, taking questions from reporters on a wide variety of topics Monday – even after his press staff tried to move him along – and refraining from attacking the press or his political opponents. His press secretary, Jen Psaki, has been holding daily briefings and on Monday announced the White House, for the first time, would include a sign language interpretation of the briefing.
But the president is not dealing with the same personalities or political environment he knew when he was a senator himself.
“Everyone (in the GOP) is looking at their primaries right now,” worried about the 45% of Republicans, in a recent YouGov poll, who said they agreed with the mob attack on the Capitol, says John Pudner, a former Republican political consultant who worked on the campaigns of such rogue conservatives as Ollie North and former Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia. “If you’re trying to get Republicans to come on board – and it’s nice to have a few – you have to understand that’s just their frame of reference.”
And while the environment is different, so too are the people. Turnover has removed some of Biden‘s old allies in his former workplace, notes University of Texas political science professor Carlos Algara, a faculty affiliate with the Center for Effective Lawmaking. “If you look at the Senate today, the median senator didn’t work with Joe Biden,” Algara says. “It’s a younger Senate, and the conservative conference in the Senate is more conservative than when Joe Biden served in the Senate.”
Biden indicated Monday he was still hopeful, saying he was prepared to enter into honest negotiations with Republicans on his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. But he held out the possibility that the package ultimately might need to pass under “reconciliation,” Senate-speak for a particular budget package that requires only a majority vote and cannot be filibustered.
It will “depend on how the negotiations go,” Biden said.