Joe Biden and John McCain were having it out on national television nearly thirty years ago, bitterly debating U.S. involvement in the conflict in Bosnia, when the dispute veered into the kind of personal exchange common in today’s politics.

“John, are you saying air strikes would not help the people in Srebrenica right now? Is that what you’re telling me?” Biden, then a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said as he pressed McCain, the Arizona Republican who died in 2018.

“I have not the foggiest notion as to what – ” McCain said before Biden cut him off.

“I know you don’t.”

It was the kind of verbal brawl that, in 2020, might blow up on Twitter, feature in a fundraising email and leave a bruise. But a longtime confidant of McCain said the 1993 bout with Biden on CBS – and others like it over the years – weren’t as personal as they seemed, largely because of the relationship the two colleagues had forged.

Now President-elect Biden hopes the relationships he built during a career in the Senate will help him transcend partisanship and push an ambitious agenda through Congress – a coronavirus stimulus, an investment in infrastructure, a comprehensive immigration bill and changes to the U.S. health care system.

Skepticism runs high about whether the former vice president’s history can translate to the post-Trump era. But even veteran political hands from both parties say they haven’t given up entirely on the idea that relationships still matter in Washington.

“He gets the benefit of the doubt,” said Mark Salter, the longtime McCain aide. “People will still go to their corners on ideological issues but when you’re trying to get stuff done that has to get done I think that’s still a real asset that Biden has.”

Biden v. McConnell

Biden is beginning to build a wish list for Capitol Hill even as President Donald Trump is disputing the election results with a series of challenges legal experts describe as questionable. Trump’s unfounded claims of victory – as well as two Senate runoff elections in Georgia in January – have muddied Biden’s chances of moving legislation.

Underscoring the current landscape, it’s not clear whether Biden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have even spoken since the election. The two were able to broker deals together during the Obama administration, but McConnell has so far declined to publicly acknowledge Biden’s win while Trump continues his fight.

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican who endorsed Biden, said McConnell’s silence is predictable given the pressure he’s under from his own GOP caucus and constituency back in Kentucky.

“There are political realities and currents that McConnell’s got to deal with,” Hagel said. “But I don’t think any of this will affect what happens after Jan. 20 when Biden and McConnell and other leaders in Congress have the responsibility to govern.

McConnell aides declined to answer questions about Biden’s agenda.

A Biden transition official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy acknowledged aides are developing two different visions for the incoming president’s first 100 days in office, one in which Democrats claim control of the Senate after the runoffs in Georgia, and a less ambitious plan if they do not.

Biden himself acknowledged as much in a call this week.

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