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Biden Throws a Picnic, Trying to Recapture Bipartisan ‘Magic’

WASHINGTON — For a few moments on Tuesday, before the thunder rolled and the clouds threatened to open, President Biden was shirt-sleeves deep in the sort of political camaraderie he placed at the center of his run for the White House: on the South Lawn, surrounded by barbecue and children and a few Republicans, extolling the virtues of learning to love people with whom you disagree.

Across town on Capitol Hill, a House committee had just finished another hearing into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and former President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Many Republicans, who had spent the day criticizing Mr. Biden for high inflation, have decried those hearings as a sham.

Mr. Biden made no mention of any of those developments. At a time of mounting political division, the president threw a picnic for members of Congress and their families, inviting every Republican and Democrat in the House and Senate. He used it to renew his plea for a more personalized, civilized political discourse, reviving a tradition interrupted in recent years and seeking to recapture some of what the first lady, Jill Biden, called the “magic” of the White House grounds to bring people together across the aisle.

“I wish we were able to do more of this so that you all got to know one another well,” Mr. Biden said at the start of a short speech in which he avoided political issues entirely and instead reminisced about his decades befriending Republicans in the Senate.

The congressional picnic, a staple of Washington summers for several decades, had been derailed repeatedly in recent years. Mr. Trump abruptly canceled it in 2018 amid controversy over his immigration policies, forcing White House cooks to donate pounds of already grilled steak. The picnic returned the following year — Mr. Trump brought a Ferris wheel to the festivities — but it went on hiatus again for the following two years amid the pandemic.

In reinstating it this year, Mr. Biden was returning to the backslapping, aisle-crossing comfort zone that he has made central to his political brand. He won the Democratic nomination and the presidency in 2020 in part by promising that he could unite a bitterly divided Washington to solve problems and pass major legislation. His presidency has racked up a few notable successes on that front, including an infrastructure bill passed last year and a gun safety bill passed last month, both with bipartisan support in the Senate.

But despite Mr. Biden’s repeated appeals, lawmakers in both parties, and their base voters, appear to be chafing at the confines of collaboration.

Liberal activists have criticized the gun legislation for not going far enough to restrict access to assault weapons. On Monday, as Mr. Biden promoted the bill in another South Lawn celebration, a protester demanding more vigorous action interrupted before being escorted away.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, has threatened to hold up a final bill — which is aimed at making the United States less reliant on China and other countries for critical technology — unless Democrats drop their plans to pass a separate bill containing energy tax credits, prescription drug price relief, deficit reduction and tax increases on businesses and high-earning individuals. Democrats are seeking to pass that legislation through a special Senate procedure that allows them to bypass a Republican filibuster.

A majority of House and Senate Republicans skipped the picnic on Tuesday, and a reluctance to be seen with Mr. Biden most likely motivated some of those lawmakers to stay away. But some showed up; White House officials said about a dozen Republican senators were in attendance, though reporters could not see all of them.

The lawmakers who did attend found tables covered with blue plaid cloths as well as boxed dinners of brisket and fried chicken and something called a “veggie roll sandwich.” There were cornhole sets with the presidential seal, hula hoops, ice cream bars and several bar tents, which offered soft drinks, wine and an India pale ale from Delaware, Mr. Biden’s home state.

The first lady welcomed the group first, telling those on hand that there was “something magical” about the White House that “reminds us that we are part of something that is so much bigger than one party or political movement or presidency.”

Then came Mr. Biden, who told old stories from the Senate lunchroom and refrained from bragging about his legislative accomplishments, as Mr. Trump had done at the last picnic in 2019. Instead, Mr. Biden seemed to relish the chance to socialize — and to try to recreate the comity of his early days in Washington.

“They said you can work the rope line,” he said, closing his remarks. “I said, hell, I’m going to sit down and eat with you all. And so you’re stuck with me.”

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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