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Biden veers off script to thank McConnell but makes few other bipartisan overtures

In his joint address to Congress, the president ad-libbed a moment of gratitude for his main antagonist in Congress.
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden was elected on a promise to work across the aisle. But his first address to a joint session of Congress made few overtures to Republicans — until he ad-libbed some personal gratitude for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

While Biden didn't opt to attack Republicans, the minimal appeals for cooperation are another sign of the continued division in Washington.

In a House Chamber mostly empty because of Covid-19 restrictions, Republicans stood to applaud only a handful of times, such as when Biden called for defeating cancer and said most police officers "serve their communities honorably."

"I know of nothing that is more bipartisan, so let's end cancer as we know it. It's within our power to do it," Biden said as lawmakers from both parties stood to cheer.

Image: President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden gestures as Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., look on after he addressed a joint session of Congress at the Capitol on Wedneday.Melina Mara / AFP - Getty Images

But Republicans otherwise largely sat stone-faced behind their masks as he laid out his agenda and asked for their support on issues from infrastructure to police reform.

"I applaud a group of Republican senators who just put forward their proposal," he said. "We welcome ideas."

But there was little else for Republicans. For instance, he mentioned "jobs" more than 40 times and "vaccines" 14 times but said "Republicans" just six times and "bipartisan" just twice.

Biden's only mention of the top Senate Republican came when he strayed from his prepared remarks to thank McConnell, whose filibuster powers represent the biggest obstacle to Biden's agenda.

Biden recalled a bipartisan cancer research bill that passed Congress at the end of his time as vice president, which McConnell suggested naming after Biden's late son, Beau, who died from a brain tumor in 2015.

"You'll excuse the point of personal privilege. I'll never forget you standing, Mitch, and saying name it after my deceased son," Biden said.

He mostly urged Republicans to move to his positions, however. "We need more Senate Republicans to join with the overwhelming majority of their Democratic colleagues and close loopholes and require background checks to purchase a gun," he said.

"If you actually want to solve the problem — I have sent you a bill. Now pass it," he said about immigration and the border.

Republicans, who have shown little evidence that they're genuinely interested in working with Biden, blamed him for the lack of bipartisanship.

"A lot of us who know Joe and worked with Joe are wondering what happened to that guy. Seems like he's tied up in a basement somewhere," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told reporters, echoing a frequent campaign criticism by former President Donald Trump that Biden remained at home during the pandemic.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, delivering the GOP's official response, said he didn't want to be partisan and then knocked Biden for being too partisan.

"A president that promised to bring us together should not push an agenda that tears us apart," Scott said. "Our nation is starving for more than empty platitudes. We need policies and progress that brings us closer together."

Scott said Republicans passed five bills responding to the pandemic last year, when they controlled Congress, before Democrats decided to "go it alone" on Biden's $1.9 trillion package.

And he said Biden and Democrats' infrastructure plan is loaded with "partisan wish list" items. "They won't even build bridges to build bridges," Scott said.

Many Democrats say that Republicans have no interest in working with Biden and that they just want to slow or derail his agenda so they can blame him for its failure.

But the White House has stepped up its efforts to court Republicans in recent days, an acknowledgment that he will need at least 10 Republican senators to pass most legislation.

Even Biden's call to cure cancer drew sarcastic derision from the conservative news site Breitbart.

"President Science Calls for End to Cancer 🙄" the site declared in a headline on its front page, with an eye-rolling emoji.