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In Biden’s Washington, Democrats and Republicans Are Not United on ‘Unity’

WASHINGTON — In defining his mission for history as bringing together a divided country, President Biden has made “unity” the watchword of his …

WASHINGTON — In defining his mission for history as bringing together a divided country, President Biden has made “unity” the watchword of his fledgling administration. But one thing that divides America is what unity actually means.

In his Inaugural Address on Wednesday and in other public appearances, Mr. Biden reached out to Republicans with messages of conciliation, vowing to work together to tackle the nation’s enormous challenges — a starkly different tone than President Donald J. Trump typically took. But in Mr. Biden’s opening hours at least, the outreach was more about words and symbols than tangible actions.

He did not appoint any members of the opposition party to his cabinet, as Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama did, and many of the executive orders he signed in his first two days in office were aimed at reversing Mr. Trump’s policies and enacting liberal ideas, not finding common ground. He has offered no examples of Republican priorities he was willing to adopt in the interest of bipartisan cooperation nor described what compromises would be acceptable to win congressional approval of his initiatives.

Mr. Biden and his allies, however, argue that unity means something different than concession — more of a change in culture, not splitting the difference on policy plans. After a presidency that salted the wounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and culture, then sought to overturn a democratic election leading to a mob assault on the Capitol, unity can mean a renewed commitment to the broadest values of America. The two sides will still wage vigorous battles over ideas, so this argument goes, but they should be debates of good will rather than search-and-destroy operations.

“Ultimately, greater unity will require broader agreement on the value of government itself, which is precisely why Biden is emphasizing competent government action as the key to recovery from the pandemic and economic crisis,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Senate and Clinton White House staff member who is now at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Mr. Biden has long been an apostle of bipartisanship and cultivated close friendships across the aisle during 36 years in the Senate and eight years as vice president. But the incentive structures have changed. Where politicians used to perceive a political reward for at least appearing bipartisan, today they perceive risk of being accused of selling out by the more fervent elements of their own party. Compromise is seen by many as a vice not a virtue.

The flashes of cross-party comity on display on Inauguration Day were quickly fading by the day after. Senate Democrats and Republicans on Thursday faced off over rules to govern their evenly split chamber for the next two years as well as how to proceed with a trial of Mr. Trump, who was impeached for inciting an insurrection. Republicans complained that the new president’s agenda on immigration, economics and the environment advanced through executive actions and proposed legislation offered no gesture toward them.

“Biden had a good message of unity,” Alyssa Farah, who was Mr. Trump’s last White House communications director before breaking with him after the mob assault on the Capitol, wrote on Twitter, “but the policies so far are aimed at only half the country, those who supported him, with no sign of outreach to those who did not.”

At the same time, Mr. Biden will also come under pressure from the other side of the spectrum. Liberals in his own party will resist any moves that seem to undercut the policy prescriptions they favor out of what they see as some misguided notion of cooperation with Republicans.

“To me, Biden can be most unifying if he continues to press forward on these bold populist policies that put money in people’s pockets, that help people feel they have opportunity again and that they have relief from this virus,” Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington State and the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in an interview. “That’s what he’s got to focus on. We can’t allow the idea of compromise for compromise’s sake to take away the need to really actually deliver results that people can see.”

The pending impeachment trial of Mr. Trump has quickly become a lightning rod in the early days of Mr. Biden’s presidency, portrayed by the segment of the Republican Party that still supports the former president as an act of retribution that belies the gauzy language of unity.

“I’ve got to tell you, it’s hard to unify when they’re impeaching a president who’s no longer in office,” Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of Mr. Trump’s strongest Republican defenders, said in an interview. “It’s hard to unify when we’re not able to make our argument because of the cancel culture.”

Mr. Trump’s defenders said Mr. Biden should call congressional Democrats and tell them to back off. “His refusal to do that shows me that he really doesn’t have the ability or the willingness to unify us because that would a layup,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said on Fox News.

Democrats scoffed at that suggestion, maintaining that unity does not mean that accountability should be sacrificed. A group of Democratic senators filed a complaint on Thursday with the Ethics Committee against two Republican allies of Mr. Trump, Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, accusing them of validating the mob by challenging the Electoral College vote for Mr. Biden.

“I don’t think it’s very unifying to say, ‘Let’s just forget it and move on.’ That’s not how you unify,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters. “You don’t say to a president, ‘Do whatever you want in the last months of your administration. You’re going to get a get-out-of-jail card free because people think we should make nice-nice and forget that people died here on Jan. 6.’”

Mr. Biden has sought to skirt past the impeachment issue and focused on Thursday on measures to counter the coronavirus pandemic that has already cost more than 400,000 lives in the United States, presenting that as a shared goal. “We can do this if we come together,” he said. “That’s why ultimately our plan is based on unity and all of us acting as one nation.”

The new White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, later dismissed the notion that Mr. Biden’s opening policy initiatives have not lived up to his unity promise, arguing that unemployment insurance, reopening schools and speeding up vaccine distribution are not partisan issues. She added that Mr. Biden’s commitment is to listen to Republicans and treat them seriously, not necessarily to agree with them on every point.

“They will say they’re not looking for something symbolic,” Ms. Psaki said. “They’re looking to have engagement, they’re looking to have a conversation, they’re looking to have dialogue and that’s exactly what he’s going to do.”

Republicans complained that there was no dialogue before Mr. Biden unveiled his proposed immigration legislation to provide a path to citizenship for 11 million people in the country illegally while simultaneously halting many deportations and suspending construction of Mr. Trump’s border wall. Civility, they said, was not the same thing as unity.

“Bipartisanship isn’t tone. It’s policy,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist and former chief of staff to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. “And I think he figured out the tone. But that’s not unity. If you’re nicely doing radically partisan things, unity is not sure to follow.”

Democrats scoffed at the Republican grousing given what they consider Mr. McConnell’s extensive track record of obstructionism, maintaining thatthe onus was also on Republicans to meet Mr. Biden halfway. Moreover, they said, unity does not require unilateral surrender of the promises Mr. Biden made during the campaign.

“If they’ll work with him, he will work with them,” said John D. Podesta, a former White House chief of staff under Mr. Clinton and counselor to Mr. Obama. “But it doesn’t mean throw out your core program. And if he says, ‘I think you went too far in cutting taxes on the wealthy,’ and they say, ‘Well, that means you’re not serious about unity,’ that’s just a joke.”

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