The Democratic National Convention has highlighted Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s ability to reach across the aisle and make big partisan compromises, but the Senate’s changed a lot since Joe Biden left at the start of 2009.
Still, supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Biden still think he can restore a sense of normalcy to the basic operation of government — and the White House’s relationship with Capitol Hill.
"Right now there's this feeling you've got the Democratic way or the Republican way," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont said in an interview. "The White House has been — only Republicans count."
The Democratic National Convention has highlighted some of Biden's bipartisanship, including his work on the original Violence Against Women Act and his relationship with the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Leahy, who was elected to the Senate in 1974, two years after Biden, pointed to several practices of President Donald Trump's White House that Biden would surely reverse.
"You would not see what you see at the White House now, basically where you have legislation that got through because of the work of Democrats, and when Trump signs it he invites only Republicans to the signing,” Leahy said. "The way the most effective presidents of both parties have done, they have members of both parties there for the signing."
The Vermont senator pointed to the recent example of the Great American Outdoors Act, a big bipartisan public lands package that Trump signed with only GOP lawmakers present despite the work of members of both parties.
"It would never have gotten through if the Democratically controlled House had not supported it," Leahy said. "In a way, I felt sorry for Trump that he is that childish and doesn't realize the importance of the presidency."
Mike Sozan, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who was chief of staff to former Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and who also worked for Democratic Sens. Jim Webb and Bill Nelson, said Biden’s willingness to work with the GOP is a sharp contrast with Trump, who despite being in the middle of a global pandemic has not personally met with or spoken to Speaker Nancy Pelosi in months.
"Biden seems comfortable talking to any member of Congress of either party; in fact, he thrives on it," Sozan said. "I saw it countless times, how much he thrives on those personal relationships, on always trying to find ways to talk to his colleagues, to try to broker deals, and ultimately to try to keep Congress functioning."
"He seems to pride himself on his relationships and his ability to have those conversations with Republicans, especially Mitch McConnell," Sozan said, referring to the majority leader of the Senate.
Leahy and Sozan concurred on another point: Biden is unlikely to get into fights with Congress over the mechanics of government, whether through orders found to be arbitrary and capricious or the installation of acting officials, such as Ken Cuccinelli at the Department of Homeland Security, who would never win Senate confirmation.
"You have to use end-runs like that if you want to put people who are not capable in the job, and I don't think that with his knowledge of both the Congress and the presidency, he's not going to do that,” Leahy said. "You've had hack after hack in some of these positions."
While Democrats are bullish about the prospects of an anti-Trump wave helping to carry them to a Senate majority and usher Biden into the Oval Office, they think Biden is as equipped as anyone to operate in divided government.
"If in fact the Republicans retain control of the Senate and Joe Biden becomes president, and we are still in this economic recession that no one seems to be talking about … let’s say that that’s the scenario. Take a look at … the next cycle of Republican senators who are up for reelection,” former Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said in an interview. "You’ve got a race in Pennsylvania, you’ve got a race in Wisconsin. You’ve got races in states that Joe Biden likely will win."
Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, said it is hard to predict how the dynamic would shift without Trump in office but there should be less incentive for Republicans to obstruct for obstruction’s sake, "without the threat of him tweeting something."
"The one thing that I think Joe has, over even [Barack] Obama, is he has longtime relationships … with many of the people who have been here a while," Heitkamp said. "I think that Joe Biden’s always been known as somebody who understands that you have to get things done, and that means talking to everyone."
"It’s a marked study in contrasts — Donald Trump claims to have mastered the art of the deal, but Joe Biden actually cuts the deals that matter and move the country forward," Scott Mulhauser, a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive who was deputy chief of staff to Biden on the 2012 Obama-Biden campaign, said in an email.
Mulhauser was a senior aide to former Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus both in the Senate and during Baucus’ time as ambassador to China, and he also worked for another of Biden’s longtime colleagues, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey.
"While Trump can’t even stomach a phone call with Pelosi, Biden’s negotiations with Pelosi, [Senate Minority Leader Charles E.] Schumer, McConnell, [House Minority Leader Kevin] McCarthy and more have landed some of the biggest accomplishments in recent memory and changed history," he said. "Biden knows the key players well. They know and respect him, and that’s helped him land deal after deal to move agendas forward and make real progress."
The great test of the Biden administration would be whether the partisan imperatives outweigh those relationships. Some of his legislative triumphs cited often during the convention, the Violence Against Women Act and the 10-year ban on semiautomatic rifles, came in a crime bill that many progressives blame for a surge in the prison population by setting mandatory minimum sentences. Similar deals on major bills could spark a revolt from the left.
There’s also the fact that many of Biden’s Senate allies have long since retired or died.
Only 34 current senators had significant Senate service that was contemporaneous with Biden, with another handful being sworn in just weeks before he resigned as Delaware’s senior senator to become vice president in 2009. Three of the 34 are retiring this Congress and will be gone before the next presidential inauguration, and still more are facing hotly contested reelection campaigns.
Regardless, former Indiana Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, who like Heitkamp lost reelection in 2018, thinks the potential for Biden to bridge the divide appeals to the kinds of voters who may have turned against him. Heitkamp and Donnelly have been working together on the One Country Project, a PAC focused on the rural vote.
"The people of our country are just looking for normal again — are looking for, you know, Donald Trump’s efforts of division to go away," Donnelly said. "We’re exhausted by this constant fight, and to have two adults work together in a room to make the nation strong and to maybe compromise one little bit, that’s what we are longing for."
The crux of it, Leahy said, is that Biden’s word was always good, even as a young legislator.
"Joe and I were the two youngest members in the Senate. He referred to me as the old man. I was 34, he was 32, and we became very good friends," Leahy said. "He would work very closely with both Republicans and Democrats to try and get legislation through."
Paul V. Fontelo contributed to this report.