Biden, Lawler Show That a Vulnerable Guy Can Be a Reasonable Guy

May 10, 2023

U.S. News

By Susan Milligan

The president visited the moderate Republican’s district as he make his case for a clean increase in the debt ceiling before an unprecedented default on the nation’s debt.

They’re in different parties, and each wants the other to lose in 2024. But President Joe Biden and freshman GOP Rep. Mike Lawler had a friendly competition Wednesday for a rarely sought title in modern Washington politics: Reasonable Guy.

Biden, in Lawler’s home district to make his case for a clean increase in the debt ceiling, offered a tutorial to voters on why his idea was responsible and the House Republicans’ plan was in bad faith and damaging to Americans.

So-called “MAGA Republicans” are “holding the economy hostage” by insisting on deep budget cuts in exchange for not allowing the country, for the first time, to default on debt the nation has already run up, Biden told a crowd at Westchester Community College in the Hudson Valley.

“They’ve taken control of the House. … They have a speaker who has his job because he yielded to, quote, MAGA elements of the party,” Biden said, referring to the 15 ballots Rep. Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, had to endure to win enough votes to become speaker.

One of the Republicans who voted for the House bill was Lawler, a moderate Republican who shocked national and New York Democrats by defeating former Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney – who was also chairman of the committee to elect more Democrats to the House before he was defeated.

The House bill, Biden explained, did not offer detailed cuts in the text but would take spending back to fiscal 2022 levels, exempting defense, and limit future spending to a below-inflation rate of 1% a year. That would result in a 22% cut in veterans assistance, renewable energy, Pell Grants for college students and other popular programs, the president warned.

But he had kind words for Lawler, who showed up for the event.

“Mike’s on the other team, but you know what? Mike is the kind of guy that, when I was in the Congress, there was a kind of Republican I used to deal with. He’s not one of those MAGA Republicans,” Biden said, referring to extremists aligned with former President Donald Trump who are often identified using his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

Joking that he didn’t want to get Lawler into trouble with his own GOP constituents or colleagues by saying “something nice” or something negative about the lawmaker, Biden added, “Thanks for coming, Mike, thanks for being here – this is the way we used to do it.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is less accommodating, blasting the vulnerable Republican with critical press releases. Ahead of a Lawler visit to a fundraiser in Nashville last month, the DCCC accused Lawler of colluding with “a host of extreme MAGA Republicans … including twice-impeached, indicted former president Donald Trump; Sen. Rick Scott, who has proposed cutting Social Security and Medicare for America’s seniors; and Mike Pence, a fervently anti-choice extremist who applauded a recent federal court decision to suspend FDA approval of mifepristone.”

Biden, however, needs Republicans like Lawler as he endeavors to get the debt ceiling increased before an unprecedented default on the nation’s debt. Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize any increased spending but assures that the federal government – which routinely borrows money – pays its debts for money it has already appropriated and spent.

Republicans are using the debt ceiling bill – historically considered a “must-pass” piece of legislation, since no member of Congress in the past has wanted the economy to implode, possibly kicking off a global recession – to achieve cuts in future spending.

The GOP argues that if it doesn’t force the hand of the White House (and those of Congress itself, which appropriates money for programs), politicians will have no real limits and will continue to increase the deficit (the shortfall in a single year’s budget) and the debt, which is long term. Biden noted that he has already made historic reductions in the debt. However, it is still high.

But Lawler needs Biden – or at least he needs some of Biden’s supporters. The Westchester Republican is one of just 18 Republicans who serve “crossover” districts – places where the GOP candidate won the House seat but Biden took a majority of the vote in the 2020 election.

Even more daunting for Lawler, a top target for Democrats next year, is that he is one of just five Republicans in districts Biden won by double-digit percentages. Lawler won the seat by fewer than 2,000 votes in 2022, beating Maloney with 50.3% of the vote to Maloney’s 49.7%.

That’s not a lot of room for error in a district Biden won by 10 percentage points. And Democrats need to flip just five seats to reclaim the majority in the 2024 elections.

Lawler made morning appearances on CNN, MSNBC and Fox, saying in Reasonable Guy tones that he merely wanted Biden to sit down and negotiate with Republicans, as Biden did when he was vice president.

“I welcome President Biden to my district and am willing to listen to what he has to say today, but we have to engage in a good faith negotiation,” Lawler tweeted ahead of Biden’s visit.

“He told me he wasn’t here to put any pressure on me,” Lawler told reporters after Biden delivered a speech slamming Lawler’s colleagues. “Look, I showed up because I believe very strongly that we all have an obligation to work together,” Lawler added.

Biden said he chatted briefly with Lawler about the debt ceiling and negotiations with McCarthy.

“I thanked him for the courtesy of showing up,” Biden told reporters on the tarmac in Westchester. Then, he headed to a Democratic fundraiser.