As House Republicans squabble, Biden and McConnell shake hands

Two white-haired men in blue suits shake hands. One is wearing a baseball cap.
President Biden shakes hands with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky after speaking about his infrastructure agenda in Covington, Ky.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

As House Republicans squabbled Wednesday over who would lead them, President Biden made a rare appearance with Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell to promote a bipartisan infrastructure law that will fund long-awaited repairs to an aging bridge connecting Ohio to northern Kentucky.

The symbolism couldn’t have been more potent.

Standing alongside McConnell and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, Biden said he chose the Brent Spence Bridge — which connects Covington, Ky., and Cincinnati — for his first public appearance of 2023 to send “an important message to the entire country.”

“We can work together. We can get things done. We can move forward, but just drop a little bit of our egos and focus on what is needed in the country,” the president said.


The event, organized by the White House, was a victory lap for Biden and McConnell.

The president touted a bipartisan legislative achievement while the Kentucky senator delivered on an longtime promise to update the bridge, which carries one of the nation’s busiest freight routes and has come to symbolize America’s crumbling infrastructure.

As Biden and McConnell shook hands in Kentucky, hard-line Republicans in the House were blocking Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s latest attempt to win a vote to become speaker of the House — and handing the White House a split-screen moment to contrast Biden’s bid for bipartisan cooperation with the divisions roiling the Republican Party.

“It’s a little embarrassing it’s taking so long and the way they are dealing with one another,” Biden told reporters before leaving the White House when asked about the ongoing feud. “What I am focused on is getting things done.”

The president announced more than $2 billion in investment from the $1-trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that McConnell and 18 other Senate Republicans supported last year.

The funds will be used to repair critical bridges across the country, kicking off a White House campaign to highlight the infrastructure law and Biden’s other bipartisan achievements. Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Chicago while Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited New London, Conn., on Wednesday to promote Biden’s economic plan.

Repairing the Brent Spence Bridge has bedeviled both Democrats and Republicans since the Federal Highway Administration declared it functionally obsolete in the 1990s.


Then-President Obama slammed McConnell in 2011 for refusing to support legislation that would upgrade the bridge, while Donald Trump promised to deliver the repairs as a candidate in 2016. Biden also vowed to “fix that damn bridge” during a CNN town hall in Cincinnati in the summer of 2021 before the infrastructure bill cleared Congress.

Biden, who appeared on stage with McConnell, Ohio’s Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and former GOP Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine and Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, reiterated his message that despite an era of divisive politics, “bright spots” remain across the country.

“The Brent Spence Bridge is one of them. A bridge that continues and connects different centuries, different states, different political parties,” he said. “A bridge to the vision of America I know we all believe in where we can work together to get things done.”

Biden, smiling, seemed at times to revel in House Republicans’ troubles.

He noted that Democratic Rep.-elect Greg Landsman of Ohio was unable to attend the infrastructure event because of the House stalemate in Washington.

“I wish him lots of luck,” he joked. “He may be the first freshman ever elected speaker of the House of Representatives.”

The funding is also a personal victory for McConnell, who has long sought a way to pay for repairing the deteriorating roadway, according to Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist in Kentucky and former McConnell aide.


“He’s a pretty savvy operator, and to cede the field to Democrats on fixing one of the longest-standing problems in northern Kentucky — no way,” Jennings said.

The event was also a chance for Biden and McConnell, two 80-year-old Senate veterans, to show old-style deal-making can still exist in a partisan era.

McConnell, known for his proclivity to block Democratic presidents’ agendas, has signaled a willingness to work with Biden on certain legislation despite his early promise to be a roadblock for the administration.

“We all know these are really partisan times. But I always feel that no matter who gets elected, once it’s all over, we ought to look for things that we can agree on and try to do those, even while we have big differences on other things,” McConnell said before the president spoke.

The former Senate colleagues, whose relationship spans three decades, have found cooperation since Biden took office on issues including infrastructure and boosting domestic semiconductor manufacturing. As vice president, Biden irked some in his party for striking a bargain with McConnell on a tax deal in 2010 and later in 2012.

“When he gives you his word, you can take it to the bank, you can count on it, and he’s willing to find common ground to get things done for the country,” Biden said of McConnell, noting the two didn’t agree on a lot.


The focus on bipartisanship is important for both parties in the aftermath of November’s elections.

Biden, who is weighing a reelection bid ahead of 2024, is eager to showcase his legislative wins as he prepares for a showdown with House Republicans over oversight, the federal budget and the deficit.

McConnell is looking to loosen former President Trump’s grip on the party after Republicans’ tepid performance in November.

“Independent voters sent a message that they want stability and basic, boring governance,” Jennings said.

“I think there’s an open question about the branding of the Republican Party. Is the party going to be able to put together a message of stability and governance that is believable and viable ahead of 2024?”