A Shutdown is Approaching. Biden and Johnson’s Lack of Relationship Isn’t Helping.

(Politico) - President Joe Biden and House Speaker Mike Johnson have virtually no relationship.

The two men holding the most powerful elected positions in the country have rarely talked. They don’t know each other. They are decades apart in age and miles apart in political philosophy.

Their lack of a meaningful relationship — let alone any relationship at all — has contributed to political friction and standstills over the past few months. But it’s putting an additional strain on the nation’s government this week, as both Biden and Johnson barrel toward another government funding deadline on Friday and into a third year of war in Ukraine as the underfunded country fights off Russia.

The White House has not taken Johnson up on his request for a one-on-one meeting but the two are likely to square off Tuesday when the four congressional leaders meet at the White House where the president plans to discuss both the supplemental and government funding.  

In the lead up to the meeting, there have been few signs of affinity developing between the two.

For Ukraine funding, the Biden administration is engaged in a public pressure campaign to effectively shame Johnson into allowing a vote on the floor. For government funding, the White House is working with Democratic allies who control the Senate ahead of a potential standoff with the GOP House.

“It does matter that there’s not a more robust relationship,” said longtime appropriator Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). The administration, he argues, got used to the Democratic-controlled House often quickly approving its priorities in 2021 and 2022. Now, Cole said, “that’s not going to happen. And that’s a mistake, and they need to get past that. … We’ve gotta get to the point where they can talk to one another.”

The theory that Washington best works on interpersonal relations is a bit of a glamorized and outdated view of politics. One doesn’t need to have tight friendships with lawmakers in order to win their votes.

But for Biden at least, gladhanding and human connection is core to his identity and one of the ways that he reportedly viewed his presidency as different from Barack Obama’s. He has prided himself on his personal engagement with the Hill, including with Republicans there. That he lacks those variables with the House speaker is no small matter.

Many senior aides at the White House still feel like they don’t quite know how Johnson will lead his conference or get a major deal done, according to two aides granted anonymity to speak about internal conversations. There is a belief that Johnson’s foremost allegiance is to not get on the wrong side of Donald Trump. That has disappointed but not surprised the White House team. But it’s also frustrated them on occasion, including when the speaker moved to effectively kill border security and Ukraine aid legislation earlier this month.

Over time, the president’s aides have come to see Johnson as a useful political foil — ripe for attacks on the border, Ukraine and his support of “The Big Lie” — that could turn off swing voters and help both Biden and House Democrats this fall.

Just last week, the two camps traded barbs on social media, in public statements and at campaign fundraisers.

Biden compared congressional Republicans to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, the longtime segregationist, and “these guys that have set terrible records on race.” Johnson lobbed back that Biden was “so desperate” to combat poor polling that he was “playing the race card from the bottom of the deck.”

And the president dinged the speaker for recessing the House without dealing with Ukraine funding, a point he especially emphasized after the death of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny in an Arctic prison.

“Brave Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are dying. Russia is taking Ukrainian territory for the first in many months. But here in America, the speaker gave the House a two-week vacation,” he said Friday before a meeting of the nation’s governors.

Some aides in the West Wing have speculated about how long Johnson may remain in office and who might take his place. They’re not alone: Members of Johnson’s conservative flank warned that bringing Ukraine aid to the floor would trigger an attempt to oust him from the speakership, mirroring the fate of his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy.

“We are not speculating about potential successors,” said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates. “We are talking about how Speaker Johnson needs to cancel House Republicans’ two-week vacation they’re taking instead of undoing the damage their inaction is causing to American national security, to the border, and our economy.”

While conversations between senior White House aides and Johnson and his team have picked up recently, it’s the White House’s rejection of Johnson’s request for a meeting over border security that has further strained tensions.

Biden told reporters he would be “happy to meet if he has anything to say.” But his aides have been more dismissive, leery of the president being used as a prop if Republicans are unwilling to negotiate.

“If he’s acting in good faith, then … take up the national security supplemental,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “Bring it to the floor or say that you’re going to have a discussion about it.”

A senior Johnson aide, granted anonymity to characterize private conversations, said the White House has gone about dismissing the meeting request “in insulting ways, just slapping back what were pretty good-faith outreach efforts. That’s disappointing but we have a job to do.”

“The Joe Biden legacy — at least in the Capitol that we’ve heard about over the years — of rolling up his sleeves and cutting deals is absent right now,” the aide added.

Biden’s role in legislative negotiations is often not overtly public. He’s in touch with aides multiple times a day and steers decisions on how to proceed, White House officials have said. In the border talks, it was Biden’s decision to call in lawmakers, including Johnson, for a Jan. 17 White House meeting, according to a White House official.

On Ukraine, given Johnson’s refusal to take up the Senate bill, the administration is left with limited options beyond trying to build political pressure on congressional Republicans.

Leadership of opposing parties hashing out an agreement “seems a little foreign in the culture of the House today — or just Congress in general, which is a shame,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.). “If you’re not seeking consensus, it’s hard to find consensus.”

Bacon, a member of the bipartisan group who helped craft a slimmed down Ukraine funding proposal, predicted that if a bill was put on the floor, it would pass “by 300 votes.” Other lawmakers have made similar assessments.

But the senior Johnson aide called the strategy “foolhardy,” pointing out that the vast majority of House Republicans are in safe GOP seats that can withstand any political pressure exerted by the White House.

The more pressing issue in the immediate weeks ahead are the March 1 and March 8 deadlines to fund the government.

Johnson, since winning the gavel in October, has questioned the political wisdom of allowing the government to shut down, a concern shared by the centrists and a few others in his governing wing. But he’s under growing pressure from House conservatives to play hardball and push for steep spending cuts, increasing the odds of at least a partial government closure.

When Johnson was suddenly elevated to the speakership after McCarthy’s demise, very few of Biden’s inner circle or his legislative staff had any sort of relationship with him, according to the two Biden aides.

Several White House officials, including senior counselor Steve Ricchetti, reached out to Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike to see what they thought of Johnson only to find that, for the most part, the members of Congress didn’t know him either, according to the aides.

Johnson and Biden met briefly for the first time in late October when the newly elected speaker attended a Situation Room meeting. Since then, the speaker has attended a White House meeting with other lawmakers, and the two men sat side-by-side and bowed their heads together earlier this month at the National Prayer Breakfast on Capitol Hill.

Their most substantive known conversation came in a one-on-one phone call last month, shortly after Johnson visited the southern border.

Yet it appeared to do nothing to bridge the Rio Grande-sized gulf between the two.

By Jennifer Haberkorn and Jonathan Lemire
February 26, 2024

Olivia Beavers and Jordain Carney contributed to this report.


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