COVINGTON, Kentucky -- President Joe Biden on Wednesday held out the promised makeover of a dilapidated bridge over the Ohio River as a symbol of what can happen when Republicans and Democrats work together — even as he condemned what he labeled an “embarrassing” scene of GOP disarray back in Washington.
The Democratic president’s trip to the Brent Spence Bridge, which is getting a load of federal cash under the bipartisan infrastructure law, came as Washington was gripped by the GOP’s inability to unify behind a candidate for House speaker.
“To have a Congress that can’t function is just embarrassing," Biden said before he left Kentucky to return to Washington. "We’re the greatest nation in the world. How could that be?” Earlier at the White House he said that the stalemate over who would succeed Democrat Nancy Pelosi as speaker now that the Republicans control the House was “not my problem.”
But the discord is fresh evidence that Biden’s chances of securing massive, transformational legislation have all but evaporated in a divided Washington, where the focus is set to turn to GOP investigations of the Biden administration and battles over essentials like funding the government and meeting federal debt obligations.
That has the White House and top Cabinet officials hoping to direct the country’s focus to Biden’s achievements during his first two years in office and demonstrating how the new laws directly affect Americans, while appealing to newly empowered Republicans to find additional areas of cooperation in the new Congress.
The bridge visit is part of a renewed push by Biden to highlight the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, which contains $1 trillion for roads and bridges, broadband networks and water projects across America. The money will be critical not just for the communities getting the help but to the Democratic president’s political theory that voters are hungry for bipartisanship that delivers tangible results.
“I believe it sends an important message, an important message to the entire country," Biden said from a stage overlooking the soon-to-be-renovated bridge. “We can work together. We can get things done. We can move the nation forward, but just drop a little bit of our egos and focus on what is needed in the country.”
Biden was joined by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell — a frequent foil of Democrats — who greeted the president at the local airport and and rode with him in his limousine to the riverfront. McConnell was one of 19 Senate Republicans to support the infrastructure law and has said repairing the Brent Spence has long been a priority.
“We all know these are really partisan times. But I always feel that no matter who gets elected, once it’s all over, we ought to look for things that we can agree on and try to do those, even while we have big differences on other things,” McConnell said in brief remarks before Biden took the stage. The GOP senator called the bridge an example of bipartisanship that the “country needs to see.”
Democrats' stronger-than-expected showing in the midterms allowed their party to retain control of the Senate even as the House fell to Republicans.
On Tuesday, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the ostensible GOP pick for speaker, failed to win the required majority on three ballots — the first time in a century that a speaker hasn’t been selected on the first ballot. Members-elect returned to the chamber on Wednesday for additional balloting with no clear path to a resolution.
At the bridge, Biden made light of the House drama, quipping that a newly elected House member couldn't attend the event because “he’s dealing with trying to figure out who’s gonna be the next speaker," before appealing for lawmakers of both parties to search for common ground in the year ahead.
“After years of politics being so divisive, there are bright spots across the country," Biden said. “The Brent Spence bridge is one of them. A bridge that continues and connects different centuries, different states, different political parties — a bridge to the vision of America I know we all believe in where we can work together to get things done.”
The perennially congested bridge connecting Kentucky and Ohio has frustrated motorists for decades. The infrastructure law will offer more than $1.63 billion in federal grants to Ohio and Kentucky to build a companion bridge that will help unclog traffic on the Brent Spence.
Other top administration officials are holding similar events Wednesday and Thursday at other major bridges in the U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris was stopping by the collection of bridges crossing the Calumet River in Chicago; Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was appearing at the Gold Star Memorial Bridge in New London, Connecticut; and White House infrastructure coordinator Mitch Landrieu was to be at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco on Thursday with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
All the bridges will get new funding under the infrastructure law, which is one of Biden’s marquee bipartisan accomplishments.
After his speech, Biden’s motorcade drove over the dilapidated bridge after a stop at a Cincinnati barbecue restaurant.
Landrieu told reporters on Air Force One that Biden's appearance with McConnell was “really important to demonstrate that these two people who have been friends for a long time and who don’t always see eye to eye have put their country first."
The Brent Spence, which carries Interstates 71 and 75 between Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, was declared functionally obsolete by the Federal Highway Administration in the 1990s. It has become an outsized symbol of the nation's crumbling infrastructure, with successive presidents from both parties singling out the aging span as they stumped for better roads and bridges.
In 2011, President Barack Obama name-checked McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, who represented the Cincinnati suburbs, as he stood near the Brent Spence and pushed the two Republican leaders to support a jobs package that would fix similarly ailing bridges. Six years later, President Donald Trump told a local Fox station that “I’ve already heard about the bridge. I love the area."
“We’re going to get it fixed," Trump said about the Brent Spence, which he called “dangerous.”
As for Biden, he said during a 2021 CNN town hall in Cincinnati that his administration would “fix that damn bridge of yours."
Miller reported from Washington.