Senator Susan Collins was driving to the airport in Bangor, Maine, for a flight back to Washington, when her cellphone rang. Hours earlier, she and some of her Republican colleagues had sent President Joe Biden a letter objecting to the scale of his $1.9 trillion coronavirus-relief bill. They wanted to come see him. To Collins’s surprise, the new president was on the phone. Biden had called her “out of the blue,” she later said. The next day, Collins and nine fellow Republicans found themselves in the Oval Office for a discussion that ran one hour, and then two.
The meeting, on February 1, yielded no grand compromise. Biden isn’t budging, nor are the Republican lawmakers; the two sides remain hundreds of billions of dollars apart. If Biden prevails in the first great fight of his presidency, the victory will likely be the result of a strict party-line vote and the thin numerical edge that Democrats hold in Congress. (The House passed the bill last Saturday without a single Republican vote in favor. The Senate is expected to take up the package this week.) Yet since Biden’s been in the White House, he has routinely made overtures to the opposition.
The question is whether these attempts at bipartisanship are cosmetic, or whether they reflect Biden’s natural instincts, represent a calculated strategy, or are some combination of all three. As many have observed, Biden is a throwback to an era when cordiality between Republicans and Democrats wasn’t as rare as it is today. “I’ve had four calls from the president since my reelection,” Collins told me as she walked through the Capitol on a recent afternoon. “We go back a long way. I think highly of him. I want him to be successful, and the best way for him to be successful is to resist the pull to the left.”