When ten Republican senators became the first official lawmakers to visit President Biden in the White House late Monday evening, grand negotiations and column inches were expected. From positive press coverage to fawning over the “uniter in chief,” there were high expectations for this meeting. Sadly for the GOP attendees, it seems they were not informed that this was little more than a chance for Joe Biden to parade his bipartisan credentials.
Ostensibly billed as an opportunity to negotiate Biden’s COVID relief package, the group of senators, led by Susan Collins of Maine, sought to make reductions in the $1.9 trillion proposal. That they received precisely zero concessions and yet touted the talks as a success that may presage the likely future of congressional dealings: public theatre over cross-party cooperation.
He Likes Me, He Really Likes Me!
Speaking to reporters at the end of the two-hour session, Sen. Collins said:
“It was a very good exchange of views. I wouldn’t say we came together on a package tonight. No one expected that in a two-hour meeting … But what we did agree to do is follow up and talk further.”
However, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was quick to deliver the killing blow, saying that President Biden “reiterated that while he is hopeful that the Rescue Plan can pass with bipartisan support, a reconciliation package is a path to achieve that end.” A reconciliation package would mean that rather than passing the spending bill with the usually required 60 votes, just a simple majority would be necessary. So why go through the whole charade?
Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) later delivered a more sober assessment, pointing out that he and his fellow Republicans had made the case to avoid the budget reconciliation process, but admitted that for Team Biden, “There was never a point where he said, ‘Okay, let’s compromise here.’”
The Gang of Ten
If Joe Biden was unwilling to compromise on either cuts to the relief package or on budget reconciliation, what was the point of the much-vaunted meeting? In politics, it is often more important to be seen to be doing something over actually doing something, and this case is no exception. By entertaining the senators, the president can truthfully say that he is working hand in hand with lawmakers across the aisle … that he appears not to be doing so in good faith is largely irrelevant to the Fourth Estate reportage. But what do Sens. Collins, Romney, Tillis, Cassidy, Murkowski, et al. get out of it?
One obvious benefit is that those who reached out to the administration receive the same plaudits as Biden for attempting to work cross-party. But perhaps more importantly, they positioned themselves as the senators who are open for the business of politics. Fundraising opportunities and positive media spin are the currency of the political age; without these, power is far too easily removed. But what if the public realizes that the negotiations wrought nothing of note but ongoing coverage for the commander in chief?
The spending package will likely proceed as originally laid out, Joe Biden will be rewarded with media praise for his efforts at bipartisan support, and the GOP senators have walked away empty-handed. There is an adage that in business – as in gambling – if you can’t spot the sucker at the table, then it’s probably you.
Read more from Mark Angelides.