Biden hosts congressional leaders to discuss his agenda

President Joe Biden, center, at the top of a meeting with congressional leaders to discuss legislative priorities for the rest of the year, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2020, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. From left are House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, of N.Y., Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky.
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Joe Biden said Tuesday he hopes lawmakers can work together to fund the government, boost spending for Ukraine and avert a crippling rail strike as he hosted congressional leaders at the White House. But Republicans’ pick to be the next speaker of the House served notice that things are “going to be different” once the GOP takes control of the chamber.

The meeting came as Biden looks to lock in more legislative wins before Democrats lose unified control of Washington on Jan. 3 and as the president is dependent on Congress to avoid a government shutdown on Dec. 16. Biden also wants a government funding bill to provide additional money for the COVID-19 response and to bolster U.S. support for Ukraine’s economy and defense against Russia’s invasion.

Biden has also called on Congress to step in and impose a tentative agreement between railroads and workers to avert a potentially crippling freight rail strike on Dec. 9.

Lawmakers are months behind on passing funding legislation for the current fiscal year, relying on stop-gap measures that largely maintain existing funding levels, that federal agencies have warned leaves them strapped for cash.

“We’re going to work together, I hope, to fund the government,” Biden told lawmakers, emphasizing the importance of Ukraine and pandemic funding as well.

The president said the “economy’s at risk” because of the looming rail strike, and he said he is “confident” that Congress could act to avert it. “There’s a lot to do, including resolving the train strike,” he said.

Meeting in the Roosevelt Room, Biden sat at the head of the conference table, flanked on either side by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the two smiling brightly at the start of the meeting.

Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy sat next to Schumer, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was next to Pelosi and appeared more reserved.

As the meeting began, Biden quipped, “I’m sure this is going to go very quickly” to reach agreement on everything. Lawmakers spent a bit more than an hour with the president, who was joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and senior aides.

McCarthy is working to become speaker in January, though he must first overcome dissent within the GOP conference to win a floor vote on Jan. 3. Speaking to reporters outside the White House, McCarthy said Biden “got an indication that it’s going to be different” once Republicans take control of the House.

The GOP House leader, who has hardly spoken with Biden during the president’s first two years in office, said “I can work with anybody,” but that the Nov. 8 midterm elections show that “America likes a check and balance.”

Schumer and Pelosi described it as a “good” and “productive” meeting as they left the White House.

“There was good will in the room,” Schumer said, saying they were “trying to have a meeting of the minds.”

All the leaders said their preference was to pass a comprehensive spending bill for the fiscal year, rather than a continuing resolution that largely maintains existing funding levels.

“If we don’t have an option we may have to have a yearlong” stop-gap bill, Pelosi added.

McCarthy, who has promised to look more critically at the Biden administration’s requests for Ukraine aid, told reporters that, “I’m not for a blank check for anything.” He said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to more funding, but wanted to ensure “there’s accountability and audits.”

Congress is also taking up legislation to codify same-sex marriage, raise the debt limit and reform the Electoral Count Act in a bid to prevent another attempt like in 2020 when then-President Donald Trump and allied lawmakers tried to overturn the will of voters in the presidential election he lost to Biden. The Senate is set to take up the marriage bill on Tuesday, and the House will have to approve it before it goes to Biden’s desk.

“We’re going to find other areas of common ground, I hope,” Biden added, “because the American people want us to work together.”

Republicans are set to hold a narrow majority in the House come January, while Democrats are retaining control of the Senate. A runoff election in Georgia next week will determine whether Biden’s party will hold a 51-49 majority or Vice President Kamala Harris will be needed to break a 50-50 tie.