The two maintained a strong working relationship in the Senate – but now it will face a new test when Biden is sworn as president

When they were both in the Senate, Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, maintained a strong working relationship that survived some of the most partisan legislative fights in decades.

That relationship will now face a new test when Biden is sworn in as president of the United States and McConnell will be the highest-ranking Republican in the country.

It’s a setup familiar to Biden: when he was vice-president, Barack Obama had to battle with an adversarial McConnell, who at one point said the top priority of Senate Republicans was to make Obama a “one-term president”.

The difference between the beginning of that matchup – between a Democratic president who spent a just few years in the Senate and a Republican minority leader – and now is significant. McConnell, unlike at the beginning of the Obama administration, may command a slim Republican majority in his chamber when Biden takes office.

Last week, McConnell finally gave a speech on the Senate floor in which he congratulated Biden on becoming president-elect, effectively putting another nail in the coffin of Donald Trump’s repeated baseless claims of widespread fraud and attempts to overturn the results. Later that day Biden publicly said he had spoken with McConnell by phone.

“I had a great conversation with Mitch McConnell today,” Biden said on Tuesday. “I called him to thank him for the congratulations. I told him that while we disagree on a lot of things there are things we can work together on. We agreed to get together sooner than later. And I’m looking forward to working with him.”

More significantly, the two have a history of working together through their decades in Congress. Biden was first elected as a senator for Delaware in 1972; McConnell was first elected to the Senate for Kentucky in 1984.

Since then, they have been co-sponsors on 318 bills, according to a Guardian tally. During a contentious debt limit fight in 2011, Biden was the preferred Obama administration liaison for McConnell. Biden has long prided himself about his deep bipartisan ties in the Senate.

“I on a number of occasions couldn’t get things done on my own and that’s when I would call in Joe Biden,” Harry Reid, the former Democratic Senate leader, said in an interview with the Guardian. “The reason that I would call upon Joe Biden in a time of my personal crisis because I couldn’t get things done on my own was he was trusted very much by Republicans, that was the way it was with all my Senate colleagues. Joe Biden had been there a long long time. He’d built up a lot of chits with a lot of people.”

Biden and McConnell appear to be polar opposites. Biden is known for his effusive friendliness and loquacious public demeanor. McConnell is more reserved and careful with his words. Yet the two will both either say they can work together or say nothing at all.

“They’re both civil,” the former senator Max Baucus of Montana said in an interview. “They’re not going to call each other names because they’ve known each other so long and if you’ve known someone that long you tend not to want to call them names.”

McConnell and Biden made a joint appearance at the eponymously named McConnell Center at the University of Louisville in 2011. In introducing Biden, then vice president, the Senate Republican said “Now that he’s moved to the other end of Pennsylvania avenue I’m happy to say that our working relationship is still strong.”

Biden at that same event described McConnell as someone he understood and a good example of the then vice-president’s deep connections in the Senate.

“The relationship between Senator McConnell and President-elect Biden has been professional, enabling them (and, importantly, their staffs) to negotiate in good faith,” said Jon Kyl, a former senator from Arizona who served in Republican Senate leadership. “In any government, certain things must get done; as professionals, these two know how to achieve necessary results.”

McConnell was also the single Republican senator to attend the funeral of Beau Biden, the president-elect’s son, in 2015.

There’s a residual level of mutual bitterness between McConnell and his community of former and current staffers and that of Obama and his former staff. In Obama’s recent book he recounts and interaction between Biden and McConnell.

“Joe told me of one run-in he’d had on the Senate floor after the Republican leader blocked a bill Joe was sponsoring; when Joe tried to explain the bill’s merits, McConnell raised his hand like a traffic cop and said, ‘You must be under the mistaken impression that I care,’” Obama wrote. “But what McConnell lacked in charisma or interest in policy he more than made up for in discipline, shrewdness, and shamelessness – all of which he employed in the single-minded and dispassionate pursuit of power.”

But less so when it comes to Biden and McConnell. That may partially be because McConnell and Biden will have to deal with each other going forward. The two have been in something of a detente. McConnell hasn’t spoken particularly ill of Biden and vice versa.

Baucus said if Biden sets out with some kind of initiative attractive to Republicans, that could extend a honeymoon phase between him and McConnell.

“If Joe proposes and starts off with an infrastructure bill that’ll help because that’s bipartisan,” Baucus said.

Baucus added that McConnell “will want to work with Joe as best he can because they know each other”. But the former Montana senator also noted that McConnell’s motivations include staying majority leader and protecting his caucus, interests that don’t naturally align with a Democratic president.

That silence can only last so long. In either the case where the Senate is split 50/50 between Republicans and Democrats with Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote or where Republicans have a small majority the president and Republican Senate leader will have to work with each other.

Asked if Biden and McConnell will be able to work together in harmony, Reid said: “I think we’re going to know pretty quickly because President-elect Biden, when he becomes president he’s going to have to move on certain things very quickly.

“He has a portfolio that’s loaded with stuff that he has to do and he’s going to have to pick and choose what he has to move on and I would hope that there are enough Republicans to help,” Reid added.

Asked about their different personalities and whether they will be able to work together, Kyl said in an email: “Yes, they are very different personalities, but have found they can trust each other. And, again, much of it depends on their staffs also working with each other. If they don’t have the same kind of staff they did, say in 2010-12, it would not work as well.”


News – Biden and McConnell have a long history – but can they really work together now?