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A look at Biden and McCarthy's relationship ahead of the State of the Union address

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When President Biden delivers his State of the Union address next week, he'll have a new person peering over his left shoulder, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. NPR's Scott Detrow has this look at the relationship between the two men.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Biden and McCarthy are both backslapping political lifers, two men who put high priority on the value of personal relationships. So the terse, blunt answers they've recently given about each other speak volumes.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I think he's the Republican leader, and I haven't had much of occasion to talk to him.

DETROW: That was Biden just after the midterms. Here's McCarthy more recently.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: We've met many times prior to him being president, but not as often as being present. But I look forward to making this all work.

DETROW: There are several reasons the two didn't talk much the past two years. McCarthy led the minority party in the House and didn't have much leverage. And especially in the wake of the January 6 attacks, Democratic relationships with House Republicans froze to Arctic levels. It's a sharp contrast to Biden's dealings with the other top Republican, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. When McCarthy was fighting for his job in round after round of Speaker votes, Biden and McConnell were holding a political event together marking the bipartisan infrastructure law.

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BIDEN: I asked permission if I could say something nice about him. I didn't want to - I said - I campaigned for him or against him, whichever would help him most. But Mitch, it's, you know, it wasn't easy and - to get this done.

DETROW: When Biden was vice president, he and McConnell worked together to cut three major bipartisan deals, including a 2011 agreement when the U.S. was on the brink of defaulting on its debt. Rohit Kumar, who these days helps lead PricewaterhouseCoopers National Tax office, was one of just a handful of other people in the room during those talks.

ROHIT KUMAR: Biden would repeatedly say, I won't tell you you your politics, you won't tell me mine. If you tell me you can't do something, I take you at your word. If I tell you I can't do something, you take me at my word.

DETROW: But that relationship is based on two things. McConnell has that McCarthy doesn't - decades of time in the legislative trenches alongside Biden and a firm grip over the politics of his caucus. House Republicans hold very narrow margins. And Biden has tried to frame the GOP as split between two wings, one that is at times willing to help govern, the other an extreme faction still under the sway of former President Donald Trump. The White House frames McCarthy as stuck between the two. Here's Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierr.

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KARINE JEAN-PIERR: Like, we understand what the speaker's going through. He has a caucus that, you know, that has put forth some pretty extreme ideas - cutting Medicare, cutting Social Security.

DETROW: Still, Biden and McCarthy will have to work together, especially on the big things like the debt ceiling. House Republican Tom Cole thinks it's possible.

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TOM COLE: I've always thought they could have a good relationship. I think they are, you know, both career public servants. I think they're both extremely political. I think they're both pragmatic. I think they're both hail fellow well met, and I think they both know how to make a deal.

DETROW: Yesterday, the president and the speaker met in the Oval Office for an hour. Standing outside the West Wing, McCarthy told reporters the discussion focused on the debt ceiling.

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MCCARTHY: Hey. Look. I don't want to give any false impressions. He gave me his perspective. I gave him our perspective.

DETROW: Months before the deadline, those two perspectives remain diametrically opposed. Biden says he won't agree to any conditions for raising the debt ceiling. McCarthy says he won't raise the debt ceiling without cuts. Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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