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How Biden ally Chris Coons hopes to cure congressional paralysis | Trudy Rubin

Sen. Coons, Biden's emissary to the GOP, will try to get cooperation on coronavirus, climate response, and China policy.

In this Jan. 6, 2015, file photo, Vice President Joe Biden administers the Senate oath to Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., as Coons' wife, Annie Coons, watches during a ceremonial re-enactment swearing-in, in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington.
In this Jan. 6, 2015, file photo, Vice President Joe Biden administers the Senate oath to Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., as Coons' wife, Annie Coons, watches during a ceremonial re-enactment swearing-in, in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington.Read moreJacquelyn Martin / AP

When 18 GOP attorneys general and 126 House Republicans ask the Supreme Court to overturn the election, joining a Texas lawsuit so baseless the court rejected it in three sentences, it’s hard to foresee any GOP cooperation with a Biden presidency.

When leading GOP senators stay mum on President Trump’s fake fraud claims and his fans’ threats of violence, with tongues frozen by fear of the president and his followers, it’s hard to imagine bipartisanship in Congress.

Yet President-elect Joe Biden has made bipartisan outreach his motto. His calls to heal the country’s bitter partisan divide were a key reason for his victory. And Biden knows that little congressional work will get done with a slim Democratic margin in the House and a closely divided Senate unless there is some cross-party cooperation.

So a key to Biden’s legislative agenda will be Sen. Chris Coons, a close ally for decades, who has spent the last decade cultivating relationships with Senate Republicans, out of a sincere belief that this is the only way government can function. The news website Politico labeled Coons “Biden’s ambassador to the GOP.” His unflagging efforts to find GOP partners could be critical on many domestic and foreign issues.

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So watch Coons’ progress closely to gauge whether enough legislators finally realize that — to paraphrase Lincoln for our times — a country bitterly divided cannot stand.

“It’s going to be very difficult,” Coons told me by phone, referring to the odds for cross-party action.

But the Delaware Democrat (who holds Biden’s old seat) is unflagging. He is also smart, thoughtful, and straightforward, with simultaneous degrees in law from Yale Law School and in ethics from Yale Divinity School. (Ethics and law: How blissfully old-fashioned to think of those two words in the same sentence.)

“A number of GOP senators I have talked with, including Pennsylvania’s Sen. [Pat] Toomey, talk about how frustrated we are,” Coons continued. “The work of the legislature has ground to a halt. This is a bipartisan concern. A group of us are pressing our leaders.”

Behind the scenes, there is more contact between senators from both parties than may be apparent in TrumpTimes. Coons has tried to have dinner with incoming new GOP senators. He asks his staff to look for areas of common interest with GOP legislators. He is warmly regarded by many Republican colleagues, some of whom called and asked him to congratulate Biden after the election because they couldn’t do it publicly.

Coons talked of working with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the First Step Act, a bipartisan effort to reform the criminal justice system, and on the Great American Outdoors Act, to help maintain our public lands. He can imagine such cross-party cooperation on aspects of climate change and global food security. And there is room for cooperation on international recovery from the pandemic.

“Senator Coons is a friend and a good colleague,” Toomey told me via email, recalling how he worked with Coons on a bill to improve the firearms background-check system. “He understands that progress can generally only be achieved through bipartisan cooperation in the Senate,” Toomey added. “We also share a goal of restoring normal legislative activity on the Senate floor, which could help in lessening the current partisan divide.”

Moreover, Coons’ foreign-policy expertise (he was seriously considered by Biden for secretary of state) and work as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have put him in close touch with many GOP counterparts. He has traveled the world with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. He talks regularly with Utah’s Sen. Mitt Romney in the climate caucus. North Carolina’s Sen. Thom Tillis is his cochair in the human-rights caucus.

Of course, one has to ask whether these friendships can translate into real progress on domestic or foreign issues, especially if Trump is still sniping from the sidelines after he leaves office. Even now, as a bipartisan senatorial group, Coons included, has been working hard on a compromise stimulus package, McConnell has blocked it.

And although Biden has a longtime close relationship with McConnell, relying on the future cooperation of the majority leader is a dubious bet.

However, if I were a betting woman, I wouldn’t shy from putting my money on Coons’ bipartisan strategy — and Biden’s. One main reason Biden won is that so many voters were fed up with political divisions and gravitated toward his message of healing. His popularity will grow if his excellent coronavirus team can manage the pandemic and vaccine distribution in ways Trump never bothered to plan.

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Senators from the heartland ignore this reality at their peril. The issues of most concern to Americans — control of the virus, economic recovery, and jobs — will fester without bipartisan efforts. So too, the country can’t address its major foreign-policy challenges, from China policy to trade to climate change, without across-the-aisle cooperation. (And cooperation between wings of the Democratic Party.)

No matter who wins the two Senate seats in the Georgia runoff election, Congress will remain too divided to operate effectively without input from both parties. The GOP senators who call Coons privately know that. Unless he and others with similar insight can lift the Trumpian stigma attached to bipartisanship, we will all lose, bigtime.