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Biden tests counter-messaging to Republicans as House GOP feuds

The White House’s strategy for blunting GOP attacks in the new year got a test run Wednesday when Biden visited Kentucky with Mitch McConnell.

COVINGTON, Ky. — A key part of the White House plan to combat the new House GOP majority was on vivid display Wednesday: President Joe Biden talked about bridges and bipartisanship, while Republicans bickered among themselves.

As Biden celebrated an upgrade to an aging bridge linking Kentucky and Ohio, House Republicans deadlocked on the basic task of electing a speaker, foreshadowing what is likely to be two years of infighting.

There is little doubt that once Republicans figure out who will run the House, they plan to aim the chamber's subpoena power straight at Biden.

But the White House is already setting in motion a counterstrategy to blunt the political effect of investigations into Biden's administration and family. They plan to show him addressing real-world problems that are Americans' top concern while painting congressional Republicans as being focused on raw politics.

Biden made only the briefest mention of the GOP’s internal power struggle at the event but emphasized that bipartisan cooperation is the more productive path for Congress to take. Appearing alongside him was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., whose support for Biden’s infrastructure bill was central to its passage. They rode to the event together in the same car, discussing Russia's war with Ukraine.

US President Joe Biden (R) shakes hands with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell during an event about the bipartisan infrastructure law in front of the Brent Spence Bridge in Covington, Kentucky, on January 4, 2023.
President Joe Biden shakes hands with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in front of the Brent Spence Bridge in Covington, Ky., on Wednesday.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

“We can work together,” Biden said with the heavily trafficked, 60-year-old Brent Spence Bridge as a backdrop. “We can get things done. We can move the nation forward if we just drop a little bit of our egos and focus on what’s needed in this country.”

Biden’s blueprint for neutralizing Republican investigations has been months in the making. The White House and its allies began preparing well before the midterm elections in November for the possibility of a Republican takeover of Congress and the inquiries that would ensue.

They are refining plans to pressure House Republicans in swing districts to stop any impeachment votes in committee — before the issue reaches the House floor.

White House allies are pushing out opposition research on Biden's Republican adversaries and circulating polls showing there is little national appetite for extensive congressional hearings into Bidenworld.

“The endgame, to be honest, is to turn the table on them,” said Brad Woodhouse, a senior adviser to a pro-Biden group called the Congressional Integrity Project, referring to House Republicans. “They’re doing this to hurt Joe Biden politically. So our effort will be to inflict political pain on them.”

GOP lawmakers haven’t been coy about their intentions. In the minority over the past two years, House Republicans introduced more than a dozen impeachment resolutions aimed at Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and other senior administration officials. (Democrats say ousting public officials over policy disputes would be an abuse of the Constitution's impeachment process.)

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the incoming chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee, has sent letters asking the Biden administration for records involving the foreign business dealings of the president’s son Hunter.

Appearing at a conference of conservative activists in August, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee, rattled off a list of targets he wanted to pursue. The probes, he said, “will help frame up the 2024 race, when I hope and I think President Trump is going to run again, and we need to make sure he wins.”

The White House has added a handful of new attorneys, along with a communications team, to deal with the slew of investigations likely to unfold. More hires will come this year. The general view inside the White House is that there is little of substance to worry about. Officials believe the GOP-led investigations stem from conspiracy theories and personal animus aimed at weakening Biden if he runs for re-election.

Federal agents have been conducting a tax-related investigation into Hunter Biden, who has paid his back taxes and insists the errors weren’t intentional. A hurdle for any Republican inquiry targeting the president would be to show that he used his influence to advance his family’s financial interests.

“Hunter Biden is a private citizen who has admitted to a drug problem and who has had overseas business dealings, as many private citizens do,” said Rep.-elect Daniel Goldman, D-N.Y., who was the lead counsel in Trump’s first impeachment. “They [Republicans] have demonstrated no evidence whatsoever that anything related to Hunter Biden is connected to President Biden.”

Biden allies cast Republicans as hypocritically demanding a quick response to records requests — when some of those same lawmakers sought to shield themselves and the Trump administration from Democratic oversight.

In November, Jordan and other House Republicans sent a letter warning White House chief of staff Ron Klain that they might use subpoena power when they gained the majority to obtain Biden administration records involving the treatment of parents at school board meetings — a hot-button issue for right-wing media.

Yet the House Jan. 6 committee has referred Jordan and three other Republican members to the Ethics Committee for defying subpoenas aimed at eliciting information about the attack on the Capitol.

“This is the same Jim Jordan who defined a lawful subpoena from the January 6 committee,” Goldman said. “It is especially rich for someone to say it doesn’t apply to me, but it should apply to everyone else.”

In any case, Biden seems in no hurry to comply. Richard Sauber, who is part of the expanded White House legal team, sent Jordan a letter last month saying he had overreached given that his party was still in the minority at the time.

“Should the [Judiciary] Committee issue similar or other requests in the [new] Congress, we will review and respond to them in good faith, consistent with the needs and obligations of both branches,” Sauber wrote.

Parallel to the White House efforts, a string of outside groups is now up and running, hoping to derail the GOP investigations. One focus will be the twenty-some Republican House members representing districts that Biden won in 2020 or that swing between the two parties. By deploying operatives in targeted districts and using paid ads, the groups will try to press lawmakers into breaking with hard-right colleagues running the investigations, people familiar with the strategy said.

“We’re going to be in these places in some form or fashion,” Woodhouse said in a Zoom meeting this week with pro-Biden allies. “We’re going to be having a conversation with these members and their constituents about what are the priorities you really want this Republican Congress to focus on.”

One goal would be to peel off enough Republicans to stop any impeachment effort at the committee stage, preventing the issue from ever reaching the House floor, according to a person familiar with the White House’s thinking. The idea would be to show Republicans they’d pay a political price in swing districts if they spend their time on investigations that voters view as a waste of time.

A Morning Consult-Politico poll in November found that only 28% believed impeaching the president or investigating Hunter Biden’s finances should be a top congressional priority. By contrast, 57% wanted to see Congress prioritize fentanyl trafficking in the U.S.

“Our coalition is certainly going to have teams in a bunch of those congressional districts by the end of the first quarter,” Woodhouse said. “And we’re going to ask every single day: ‘Do you approve of this? Do you think that your Republican leadership should be more concerned about Hunter Biden than what you’re paying for milk?’”

For all the symbolism of Biden’s bipartisan appearance Wednesday, the bridge he singled out shows just how slowly government operates. A dozen years ago, another Democratic president stood at the same bridge. There, Barack Obama challenged McConnell and congressional Republicans to “help us rebuild this bridge!” and put unemployed construction workers to work.

Joe Biden was vice president at the time. Now, it’s up to him as president to make the case that his party is finally making good on its commitments and demonstrating that there is a better use of Congress’ time than investigating his family.