WASHINGTON – When Vice President Joe Biden visited the Senate four years ago to bid farewell to his many long-time Senate colleagues, Mitch McConnell looked him in the eye and described him as "a real friend ... a trusted partner ... We're all going to miss you."
Several years earlier, after the two had worked together behind the scenes to broker a major tax deal, the Kentucky senator invited Biden to an event at the University of Louisville as a gesture of goodwill.
“You want to see whether a Republican and Democrat really like each other,’’ Biden said as McConnell looked on. “Well, I’m here to tell you we do.’’
That friendship will be tested now that Biden has been declared the nation's 46th president and McConnell is expected to return as the majority leader of a Senate that will be asked to pass the incoming president's legislative priorities, approve his cabinet members and confirm his judicial appointments.
None of that bodes well for Biden's liberal backers who expected voters would elect a Democrat-controlled Senate ready to pass a progressive agenda: undoing the Trump administration tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, enacting elements of the Green New Deal, and expanding government-sponsored health care.
South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, who will chair the Budget Committee if Republicans keep control, called such liberal priorities "dead on arrival" in the Senate.
Like McConnell, Graham counts himself as a long-time friend of the new president. He believes he can reach common ground with the incoming president on cabinet appointments and on legislation such as an infrastructure bill, targeted immigration reform and regulating social media companies.
But Graham said his personal affection for Biden won't make him give in on issues.
"I will try to help where I can and oppose him where I must," Graham told reporters Friday.
The prospect of continued GOP control of the upper chamber is already forcing Biden and his advisers to rethink who they might appoint to the cabinet, opting for more centrist choices that could win quick approval over liberal nominees whose confirmations could drag on for weeks and still fall short, according to news reports.
Biden brings to the White House four decades of experience and friendships in the Senate – including with McConnell. But without the ability to control the Senate, Democrats will have to take a more modest approach to the changes they want to make on taxes, climate change and other issues through negotiated compromises, said Scott Segal, a prominent Washington lobbyist.
“An institutionalist like Joe Biden knows that's all he can get,” Segal said. “And I would stress here that Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell may have been gladiators against one another, both in the Senate, and in this election season, but they know each other very well.”
Biden optimistic he can work with Republicans
Republicans have yet to secure their Senate majority in the next Congress though most analysts expect they will come January.
GOP incumbents are winning in two states (Alaska and North Carolina) that have yet to be called. That would mean Republicans would have to win just one of the two Georgia runoff elections scheduled for Jan. 5 to maintain their power.
Biden last week expressed confidence that he could work with Republicans on issues like health care.
“Why? Because I think they're seeing the reaction of the American people,” he told reporters soon after casting his own ballot last month. “Overwhelmingly, the American people think drug prices are too high.”
Throughout the campaign, Biden dismissed criticism from the left that he has too rosy a picture of Republicans’ willingness to find common ground and that the political dynamics have drastically changed since the days when we worked closely with GOP Senate colleagues like McConnell.
Biden promised that one of his first actions would be calling Republicans to say: “We've got to figure out how we're going to move forward here. Because there are so many things we really do agree on.”
Without the threat of President Donald Trump going after errant Republicans, Biden argued, at least some GOP senators would be willing to forge bipartisan deals.
But partisan feelings remain raw – especially toward McConnell – for Republicans' role in confirming Trump's pick, Amy Coney Barrett, to the Supreme Court only days before the presidential election.
And critics note that for all the on-the-surface camaraderie, McConnell did little to stop an investigation this year by GOP senators into allegations against Biden and his son, Hunter, involving Ukraine. The probe, which backers had touted would discredit the vice president, found no evidence of improper influence or wrongdoing by either Biden.
Still, the cloud it generated provided the former vice president's critics ammunition to use against his candidacy.
Despite friendship, deals will be difficult to reach
Former Senate aides say while McConnell and Biden have a better relationship than the Kentucky Republican had with President Barack Obama, Biden is unlikely to achieve the agenda he and other Democrats promoted on the campaign trail.
"I expect (McConnell) – and most of his caucus – will do everything in their power to block a Biden legislative agenda," said Jim Manley, who worked as a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who often sparred with McConnell.
Manley said there was a measurable difference between the treatment the Kentucky senator gave Obama and other top Democrats compared with Biden. He cited Biden's lengthy negotiations with McConnell during the 2013 fiscal cliff crisis, which primarily featured the two leaders trading phone calls as the rest of Washington eagerly awaited a deal to prevent automatic tax hikes and spending cuts.
Biden's discussions with McConnell went around Reid, who was the top Democrat at the time, Manley recalled, adding at one point an upset Reid threw a draft of the deal in the fireplace to destroy it.
It was far from the first time Biden and McConnell went against the mandates of their own parties to work together on massive deals. The two leaders also came together for a bipartisan compromise during the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011 that prevented the country from going into default.
But just as progressives will push Biden not to cave, McConnell faces similar pressure from his right flank.
"McConnell may try to isolate Biden to cut deals, but I don't believe the caucus will agree with it," Manley said. "The Republican party has changed."
Manley noted the partisan tensions that have divided Washington and the country would not simply go away under a Biden presidency.
"There's a chance that McConnell touts his ability to cut deals with Biden as he's done in the past, but I'm not really convinced that's going to happen."
Biden could use executive orders to fulfill agenda
Elaine Kamarck, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who worked for Vice President Al Gore, expects tensions will lessen after Trump leaves office, even though the election revealed that the country is still deeply divided.
“I think that we will see a lessening of this polarization for one simple fact: the president of the United States will not be fanning the flames," she said.
Molly Reynolds, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution, said Republican senators' reactions to Biden’s cabinet nominees will be an early indication of their relationship.
“Do they confirm them? Do they simply not bring some of them to the floor?” Reynolds asked. “That’s something I’ll be watching closely.”
Biden could also take a page from Trump who issued a flurry of executive orders when he couldn't get legislative proposals through Congress, a strategy that groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the Progressive Change Institute want him to take.
But the incoming president indicated he doesn’t want to be limited to such steps that could be reversed by his successor or by courts.
“I’ve got to get the votes,” Biden said. “We’re a democracy. We need consensus.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell: Republican Senate could block agenda