The president and House speaker need each other to govern, but a messaging battle has replaced functional legislating as the two spar over the budget and federal debt limit.
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President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy have built a fragile relationship since Mr. Biden’s vice presidency.
WASHINGTON — Anyone wondering how a Democratic president and the newly installed Republican speaker of the House would work together got their first real preview this month, when President Biden released a budget that Republicans vowed to torpedo and Speaker Kevin McCarthy signed his first bill — one the president has promised to veto.
In a pair of dueling events, Mr. McCarthy accused Mr. Biden of being “woke” with his promise to veto a bipartisan effort to prevent retirement fund managers from assessing a company’s cultural values before investing. From Philadelphia, Mr. Biden called on Mr. McCarthy to unveil a G.O.P. budget plan: “Lay it down,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. McCarthy responded by calling the president’s proposal “completely unserious.”
With that, the collision course between the two men, whose relationship over the next few months will among be the most important in Washington, appears to be set.
Mr. Biden, who spent 36 years in the Senate, has rosily called legislative politics “the art of the possible.” But with Mr. McCarthy publicly refusing to raise the nation’s borrowing cap without serious spending cuts and Mr. Biden refusing to negotiate on the debt ceiling at all, a feverish messaging battle has replaced functional legislating, for now, as the United States runs the risk of defaulting on its debt.
During a private Democratic Senate lunch earlier this month, Mr. Biden told the group that the speaker was in an “interesting position” — a comment that drew laughs from the crowd — and recounted his January meeting with Mr. McCarthy at the White House.
“He was basically saying he was going to hold the debt ceiling hostage,” Mr. Biden told the crowd, according to a person in the room. “And we’re just not going to play that game.”
For his part, Mr. McCarthy had a different take on the meeting: “He said he would not negotiate with me. Now he just spent an hour with me in the Oval Office,” Mr. McCarthy crowed to the Fox News host Sean Hannity.
At a celebration for Mr. McCarthy at the Conrad Hotel in Washington in January, according to two attendees, the brand-new speaker told people of advice he had taken to heart from Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, when it came to high-stakes negotiating: In a game of chicken, you have to throw the steering wheel out the window and crash the car.
The relationship between the president and the speaker of the House defines what can be accomplished in Washington — in short, they need each other to demonstrate to the public that government, even a divided one, can function. But when they are from different parties, that relationship quickly becomes combustible.
ImageMr. McCarthy has publicly refused to raise the nation’s borrowing cap without serious spending cuts.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times
Mr. Biden and Mr. McCarthy have built a fragile relationship since Mr. Biden’s vice presidency, when Mr. McCarthy would visit for occasional breakfasts during his tenure as majority leader. Similar in background — both come from middle-class families and overcame speech impediments early in life — the two men have had a strained relationship over the years.
Understand Biden’s Budget Proposal
President Biden proposed a $6.8 trillion budget that sought to increase spending on the military and social programs while also reducing future budget deficits.
- Recapturing a Centrist Identity: As he unveiled his proposal, Mr. Biden made curbing the budget gap one of his centerpiece promises. The move is part of a wider shift that sees the president speaking more to the concerns of the political middle.
- Reducing Deficit: Instead of talking about hard choices and freezing spending, the president has pledged to defend popular federal programs and rely on taxing corporations and high earners. That represents a break with the past.
- A Missing Plan for Social Security: Like the president’s previous budgets, his new proposal makes no mention of the program, which he promised to shore up during his 2020 campaign.
- N.Y. Transit Projects: President Biden’s budget plan routes about $1.2 billion to two of the biggest transit projects in New York City: the Second Avenue Subway extension and new train tunnels under the Hudson River.
After his first meeting at the White House after Mr. Biden became president, Mr. McCarthy told reporters that he didn’t think “anybody is questioning the legitimacy” of Mr. Biden’s election. That comment ignored the fact that just hours earlier he had voted along with the majority of his conference to oust former Representative Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming, from her leadership position because of her criticisms of Mr. Trump and his false claims about election fraud.
In a later interview with the conservative podcast “Ruthless,” Mr. McCarthy, who is 58, poked fun at Mr. Biden, adding to the caricature that the oldest president ever to serve in office is doddering. He said that Mr. Biden, 80, claimed to have already fixed the problems at the country’s southern border and was more interested in giving out sweets.
“He said, ‘Oh no, I fixed it. It was broken; I fixed the border,’” Mr. McCarthy said. “Then he asked me if I wanted a cookie. Oh no, he was very excited. ‘I fixed the border,’ then at the end, ‘Do you want a cookie? I’ll get you a cookie.’” He added: “He was very proud of his cookies.”
Privately, Mr. McCarthy has told allies that he has found Mr. Biden to be mentally sharp in meetings.
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Mr. Biden, for his part, has resisted personal attacks but painted broad swaths of the Republican Party as extreme, with Mr. McCarthy at the helm.
It took 15 rounds of votes — and concessions to the hard-right flank of his party — for Mr. McCarthy to be elected speaker in January. The White House sees that as a sign of his weakness, pointing to the slim majority Republicans hold in the House.
Mr. McCarthy’s supporters say they view the process as a sign of his strength and ability to stick things out to get the outcome he desires.
“If Kevin is pleasant and calm and persistent, almost the same principle that he had to endure to become speaker, in the end he’s going to get an amazing amount done and people are going to be surprised,” said Newt Gingrich, the Republican who antagonized and impeached President Bill Clinton as speaker and whose former chief of staff, Dan Meyer, is now Mr. McCarthy’s top adviser.
“He’s a good planner,” Mr. Gingrich added. “That’s what people underestimate about Kevin.”
The relationship has not been without its lighter moments.
On Friday, the two Irish American politicians joked with each other at a St. Patrick’s Day event at the Capitol, with Mr. McCarthy comparing their relationship to that between President Reagan, a Republican, and Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., a Democrat, who also shared Irish heritage.
“A clash is brewing, people say, between the president and I of what should we do?” Mr. McCarthy said. “What would be the ramifications for the entire nation in the coming months? I think you might be able to settle this for us. Which one of us is more Irish?”
Mr. Biden responded, “there’s no reason we can’t find common ground.”
The president has in the past tried to indulge Mr. McCarthy’s love of the trappings of congressional leadership. (He enjoyed traveling aboard Air Force One with Mr. Trump.) When Mr. McCarthy was invited to the state dinner in honor of Emmanuel Macron of France, he called the White House asking for an invitation for his mother. The president quickly obliged, according to two people familiar with the call.
The two had a cordial interaction at Mr. Biden’s raucous State of the Union address, shaking hands and smiling at each other — at one point, the speaker appeared to shush the rowdiest members. That cordiality did not extend far beyond the dais: Mr. McCarthy’s allies claim that they do not have a functional bond, for which they blame Mr. Biden.
“There’s a missed opportunity by the White House to engage with the speaker in a more fulsome way and in a serious way,” Representative Patrick T. McHenry, a Republican of North Carolina, said in an interview. “They’re dropping the ball on the relationship that will define the next few years.”
Mr. McCarthy has expressed frustration that during his years as minority leader, Mr. Biden rarely made any attempt to speak to him and did not mention his name during his Inaugural Address.
ImageMr. Biden has resisted making direct personal attacks against Mr. McCarthy.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times
Instead of Mr. Biden reaching out, Louisa Terrell, the White House director of legislative affairs, has spoken with the speaker several times since his January meeting with the president, discussing areas where Republicans and Democrats might work together, according to people familiar with those calls. They have talked about issues including manufacturing, control over the supply chain, support for veterans and the fentanyl overdose crisis. The White House also added two more aides to the legislative affairs team this week.
“We think the president’s done a good job of taking very hardened, slim majorities that we had last session, and we were able to kind of find the connective tissue and figure out ways that we could work together,” Ms. Terrell said in an interview.
Several current and former White House officials also say that Mr. Biden has reached out to Mr. McCarthy more frequently than is publicly known. According to one internal tally, the president has invited Mr. McCarthy to the White House 20 times since becoming president; Mr. McCarthy has accepted eight of the invitations.
In an interview, Mr. Gingrich proudly noted that Mr. McCarthy is likely to be a challenge for Mr. Biden.
“He wants to find a way to get a victory,” Mr. Gingrich said of Mr. McCarthy, “but victory is not selling out.”