A changed US Senate awaits Joe Biden

A changed US Senate awaits Joe Biden

Old-style bipartisanship and courtesy are less evident despite the president-elect’s hopes

In the early days of January 1973, Joe Biden arrived at the US Senate at one of the nadirs of his personal life. The 30-year-old father of three had just lost his wife and baby daughter in a car crash weeks before. His two sons, who were also in the vehicle, were recently out of hospital. 

No longer anxious to join the chamber to which he had been elected in an upset victory six weeks before the crash, Mr Biden was talked into the role by Mike Mansfield, the long-serving Democratic Senate majority leader. He persuaded Mr Biden to come and do the job for six months. Mr Biden stayed for 36 years.

In January, Mr Biden will return to Washington as president. He will find a different Senate from the one he joined in the 1970s, or the one he contended with as Barack Obama’s vice-president from 2009-2017.

In his most recent book, Mr Obama writes that he chose Mr Biden as his Senate intermediary not just because of the Delaware politician’s long history with the body. He knew that, in the Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s mind, negotiations with Mr Biden did not “inflame the Republican base” in the same way that “any appearance of co-operation with (Black, Muslim socialist) Obama was bound to do”.

Mr Biden appears to continue to share Mr Obama’s thinking. He has acknowledged, in the wake of his electoral victory, that he is prepared to initially run into “some real brick walls”, if Democrats fail to pick up two additional Senate seats in a pair of Georgia run-off races next month. But he has expressed confidence that he may be able to navigate the opposition in a way other Democrats could not.

“I believe I know the place,” he professed to supporters last month. “I believe we can ultimately bring it together.”

When Mr Biden first arrived in the building he was one of the youngest senators in US history — so young that he was often mistaken as a staffer by workers and then secretary of state Henry Kissinger alike, he recalled in a memoir. His first Senate office was “so small that people on my staff had to get up and stand sideways just so somebody could open the front door”. By the time he left to join the White House as Mr Obama’s vice-president, he had served as chair of the judiciary and foreign relations committees.

Over the course of his tenure there, the Senate changed too. During his early years, it was an unwritten rule that senators did not campaign in favour of a sitting senator's political opponent — even members of the opposite party. When Hubert Humphrey, the former Democratic presidential nominee, was nearing the end of his time as Senate majority whip, shortly after Mr Biden’s arrival, he shared a tearful embrace on the chamber’s floor with Republican Barry Goldwater, another former presidential candidate and his ideological adversary.

Mr Biden has hearkened back to that moment — and other times of bipartisanship — as proof that the Senate is, at heart, a collegial place.

In his memoir, Mr Biden recalls witnessing “a thousand small kindnesses from one side of the aisle to the other”, even amid the rise in partisanship: “Any day of the week you can read or hear about the lamentable state of our nation’s politics, about our bitter and partisan party divisions, about the regrettable coarseness of the discourse. I don’t deny it, but from inside the arena none of it feels irreversible or fatal.” 
In the weeks since Mr Biden’s victory, only a handful of Republican senators have acknowledged his win or publicly congratulated him. The president-elect has suggested this sort of attitude would change once Mr Trump leaves office and there is no longer “fear of retribution from the president”, as he put it recently. “Hopefully when he’s gone, they’ll be more willing to do what they know should be done,” he added. On Monday, US electors met to formally choose Mr Biden as the next president.

Mr Biden is likely to be disappointed. But perhaps it is too soon to fault him for trying. Even Humphrey was not always so idealistic about the institution — as he once put it: “The Senate is a place filled with goodwill and good intentions — and if the road to hell is paved with them, then it’s a pretty good detour.”

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