Joe Biden gets defensive during debate over his work with Mitch McConnell

Joe Biden — who liberal critics say is too willing to work with an uncompromising Republican Party — had to defend his working relationship with Democratic foil Mitch McConnell Thursday, insisting that sometimes you just need to make a deal.

The former vice president, who took most of the fire from his fellow Democrats on stage at the party’s second 2020 presidential primary debate, was forced to defend his insistence that he’d be able to work with Republicans. He offered his relationship with the Senate Majority Leader as proof.

“I’ve seen it happen,” Biden said of working with Republicans. “We needed to be able to keep the government from shutting down and going bankrupt, I got Mitch McConnell to raise taxes $600 billion by raising the top rate.”

He added, “sometimes you can’t do that, sometimes you just have to go out and beat them,” noting that he campaigned for Senate candidates across the country.

The 2020 climate is complicated for a compromise-seeking politician such as Biden who is running at a time when Democratic activists have little patience for the GOP and are seeking red meat denunciations.

But Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, criticized Biden for a deal with McConnell to extend the Bush tax cuts. Bennet called the pact a “complete victory for the tea party. ... That was a great deal for Mitch McConnell; it was a terrible deal for America.”

And he suggested Biden was naive for expecting Washington gridlock to improve: “Gridlock will not magically disappear as long as Mitch McConnell is there,” he said.

Tax cuts enacted during the George W. Bush administration were to expire in 2013. Congress approved, and President Barack Obama signed, legislation on Jan. 2, 2013, making most of the cuts permanent. But they also reinstated the pre-Bush top income tax rate for wealthier people.

Thursday was the second night in a row that McConnell emerged as a debating point, a fact that delighted the Kentucky Republican, who told reporters earlier Thursday that he was watching the Washington Nationals baseball game Wednesday night, but was “thrilled to dominate the discussion during the first debate.

“I understand that my sin is that I’ve been stopping left wing agenda items coming out of the House and confirming strict constructionists to the Supreme Court,” McConnell said. “That’s my sin and I plead guilty.”

Biden has already had to walk back conciliatory remarks about Republicans since he launched his campaign in April.

After he referred to Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, as a “decent guy,” actress and former New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon noted Pence’s record on LGBTQ issues and criticized the remark. Biden responded via Twitter, writing “there is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the Vice President.”

He also had to elaborate on controversial remarks he made as he cited his experience working on legislation with two segregationist Southern senators early in his Senate career.

“The context of this was totally different,” Biden told MSNBC host Al Sharpton. “You got to deal with what’s in front of you, and what was in front of me was a bunch of racists and we had to defeat them.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, raised Biden’s remarks at the debate, saying it was “hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.”

Biden and other Democrats have defended his approach, saying that reaching across the aisle and finding consensus is the only way to make progress.

At a campaign forum last week, Biden told MSNBC host Joy Reid, who asked about operating under McConnell, that there were “certain things where it just takes a brass knuckle fight,” but added in some cases, “you can shame people into doing things the right way.”

That struck a nerve with former Obama aide Alyssa Mastromonaco, who took to Twitter to write that “maybe you can shame people, you can’t shame McConnell.”

Biden’s approach worries Democrats such as Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who nearly ran for president himself. He says there’s a risk that Biden will come off as too friendly to McConnell, one of the party’s chief antagonists.

“I think it’s clear that McConnell is always gaming the system and McConnell’s always working,” Brown said. “As he gamed Obama and worked Obama, he did the same with Biden. That’s what he will continue to do.”

Biden and McConnell have considerable history. Biden, then vice president, and McConnell, then Senate Minority Leader, teamed up as recently as 2013 to narrowly avert a fiscal crisis. The two Senate veterans and old-school politicians launched closed door negotiations after a frustrated McConnell put out the call for someone to deal with after talks with then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, stalled.

McConnell suggested Biden, who speedily returned to Washington from his home in Delaware. They spoke and eventually reached a compromise that no one loved, but that enough members of both parties accepted.

“They may not be political allies who see eye to eye, but they have mutual respect for each other and that’s what was needed,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-North Carolina, told McClatchy at the time.

It wasn’t the first time the political odd couple — who served in the Senate together for more than two decades — had teamed up to broker deals, including a pact to extend the Bush-era income tax cuts in 2010 and another to lift the debt ceiling in 2011.

Then President Obama, who was elected before he finished his first term in the Senate and had cool relations with Congress, often turned to Biden as an ambassador to the two chambers, even when they were Republican-controlled.

Observers said the shared Senate experience helped Biden and McConnell cut deals.

“Biden’s very much an institution man, as opposed to Obama, who pretty much passed through,” then-Senate Historian Donald Ritchie noted in 2013. Biden and McConnell “served together, and there’s a great deal of trust there that enables them to work together. They’ve known each other for decades, and they’ve taken the measure of each other along the way.”

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, said his fellow Delaware senator “likes to say all diplomacy is personal and all politics is personal.”

He said Biden and McConnell “had plenty of disagreements. But they would find common ground.”

McConnell has for years used a 1992 Senate floor speech by Biden to justify why the Senate would not consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland during an election year. McConnell has even dubbed it the “Biden Rule.”

Biden accused McConnell of cherry-picking his remarks to justify the Garland blockade and said Republicans ignored Biden’s practice when he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Every nominee, including Justice [Anthony] Kennedy in an election year, got an up-and-down vote,” Biden said at a 2016 speech at Georgetown University’s law school. “Not much of the time. Not most of the time. Every, single, solitary time.”

More recently, Biden accused McConnell of refusing to sign a bipartisan warning that the Obama White House wanted to issue before the 2016 election, saying Russia should not interfere in U.S. elections.

Even as he charged at a 2018 Council on Foreign Relations appearance that McConnell had put politics first, Biden described McConnell as a “smart guy” whom he gets along with.

Yet, he added, “Mitch McConnell wanted no part of having a bipartisan commitment that we would say essentially, ‘Russia is doing this, stop.’ “

David Lightman contributed to this report.