Biden bracing for congressional combat: He is 'extraordinarily hemmed in'

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President-elect Joseph R. Biden is about to walk straight into a buzzsaw in Congress after saying during the campaign that Republicans would have an “epiphany” once President Trump was toppled, a stance many on the left dismissed as hopelessly naive.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Wednesday that Republicans can’t be expected to reach across the aisle if Mr. Biden and his team stake out far-left positions on issues such as immigration.

“If he wants to undo border security, we’ll have a fight,” Mr. Graham said. “The question for me is, who will he respond to? Is he going to respond to the most radical elements of the Democratic Party or will he respond to more moderate voice[s] in his party?”

As vice president, Mr. Biden served as something of a Mitch McConnell whisperer for former President Barack Obama, cutting deals with the Senate majority leader on major tax and spending bills.

The two spoke this week, and Mr. Biden said he’s heard from a handful of Republican senators who say they’re ready to work together on infrastructure and foreign policy.

“I may eat these words, but I predict to you as Donald Trump’s shadow fades away, you’re going to see an awful lot change,” he said.

During the presidential primary, liberal activists dismissed such calls and predictions. They said Democrats needed a bare-knuckle brawler to confront and eviscerate the GOP after four years of Mr. Trump.

Jen O’Malley Dillon, Mr. Biden’s campaign manager and the incoming deputy White House chief of staff, said the president-elect proved the naysayers wrong as she took a profane swipe at the GOP.

“In the primary, people would mock him, like, ‘You think you can work with Republicans?’” Ms. O’Malley Dillon said in an interview with Glamour magazine that was published this week.

“I’m not saying they’re not a bunch of f–ers,” she continued. “Mitch McConnell is terrible. But this sense that you couldn’t wish for that, you couldn’t wish for this bipartisan ideal? He rejected that.”

Mr. McConnell congratulated Mr. Biden as the president-elect this week and has warned his troops against joining a long-shot bid from House conservatives to challenge the Electoral College results when they’re announced in Congress next month.

But the Kentucky Republican punted on a question surrounding the timing of when the Senate might vote on Mr. Biden’s Cabinet picks.

“Our first job here is to try to finish up this session with this administration and we’ll have plenty of time to talk about the way forward,” Mr. McConnell said. “The future will take care of itself.”

If Democrats don’t sweep the two Senate runoff elections in traditionally red Georgia next month, Mr. Biden would be the first president since George H.W. Bush to start his first term with a divided government.

Even if Democrats win both Georgia races, Mr. Biden wouldn’t have much room to roam. He would have a razor-thin hold on the Senate and a diminished majority in the House.

“A best-case scenario for the Democrats is a 51-50 Senate with Joe Manchin’s votes and Kyrsten Sinema’s votes being needed for everything,” said Ramesh Ponnuru, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. Manchin of West Virginia and Ms. Sinema of Arizona are comparatively moderate voices who are unlikely to write a blank check to the far left.

Vice President-elect Sen. Kamala D. Harris would be the tie-breaking vote in a 50-50 Senate, giving Democrats an effective majority.

“I think he’s going to be really extraordinarily hemmed in,” Mr. Ponnuru said. “In a way, it probably gets worse if he has nominal control of the Senate in that there’s more expectation of action and accomplishment on the part of his supporters.”

Mr. Biden has vowed repeatedly to be a president not only for his supporters, but for the 74 million-plus people who voted for Mr. Trump as well.

“Their voice has got to be made part of the Biden agenda,” said Jim Townsend, a deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Obama administration. “Biden is going to have to show that he really means it.”

Mr. Townsend, now an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, acknowledged the deep divide and hyper-partisanship complicating domestic issues.

“On the foreign and defense policy side, it’s not so split,” he said. “It’s more a matter of convincing Trumpians that whatever we do on the military side or on the foreign policy side, it’s always America first because that’s what you do.”

Mr. Graham signaled that coming to an agreement might be easier said than done when it comes to China, calling the Chinese Communist Party the “evil empire of the 21st century.”

“I think Donald Trump has been like Reagan to China,” he said. “And I’m afraid that Biden’s going to be sort of like Chamberlain to Hitler when it comes to China.”

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