Administration

Biden, McCarthy bond over Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day

President Biden on Friday traveled to Capitol Hill for a St. Patrick’s Day luncheon, where he and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) expressed optimism their shared Irish heritage could provide a foundation for a productive working relationship.

In prepared remarks, both men spoke of their desire to work together and invoked the relationship between former President Reagan and former Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), who helped start the tradition of the St. Patrick’s Day luncheon.

McCarthy noted the parallels between those two leaders and him and Biden. One was a conservative from the West Coast and the other a Democrat from the East Coast.

“President Biden, from one Irish American to another, I want to strive every day to live up to the example of President Reagan and Tip O’Neill,” McCarthy said. “Our positions may be reversed, but our goals can be the same: that we put this country first.”

McCarthy quipped that “a clash is brewing” between him and Biden with national implications before asking the visiting Irish prime minister, “Which one of us is more Irish?”

McCarthy and Biden were seated at the same table at the luncheon, which was attended by roughly 50 lawmakers and guests, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). McCarthy began his remarks by expressing his “special thanks” to Pelosi for taking part in the luncheon, a notable comment considering the notoriously bitter relationship between the two Californians.

Biden, who talks often about his Irish roots, suggested his shared heritage with McCarthy could be a way for the two leaders to come together to find common ground at a time of heightened polarization.

“I think those of us who have been coming to this dinner a long time have never been in a case where, from the perspective of the public, the parties and the politics have been so divided as it is now,” Biden said. “But I agree with the Speaker. There’s no reason we can’t find common ground. There’s no reason why we can’t hope to change this direction of extremism both our parties are pushing. I think it’s important.”

Also in attendance was U.S. Special Envoy for Northern Ireland Joe Kennedy III, the political scion who previously served as a Democratic member of the House. McCarthy said he and Kennedy “became friends simply because of our heritage,” and told the story of a present he gave Kennedy’s daughter when she was born.

“We celebrated together when he had his first child, Ellie, and I wanted Ellie to have the experience that I had as an Irish American,” McCarthy said. “And so I sent Ellie a gift: I sent Ellie a rocking elephant.”

“One night late on the floor, Lauren, his wife FaceTimes him. We’re not supposed to answer the phone, but he’s a good father, he does. And I’m sitting next to him, and they’re sitting in Ellie’s room and Ellie is rocking on this elephant,” McCarthy recalled. “And I proudly look at Joe and I said, ‘She’s gonna have the same experience that I did: She’s born into an Irish Democrat family, and she’s gonna become a Republican.”

While the atmosphere Friday was jovial, it marked a rare face-to-face meeting for Biden and McCarthy. The two men met at the White House in February to discuss the debt ceiling and briefly interacted at the State of the Union, but otherwise have had limited direct communication.

The White House last week released a budget proposal calling for tax increases on the rich to fund Medicare and other government programs. McCarthy called the proposal, which is dead on arrival in Congress, “unserious.”

Biden later said he was ready to meet with McCarthy again to discuss raising the debt ceiling as soon as House Republicans released a budget proposal. The conference was initially expected to release its proposal by the middle of April, but that timeline has been delayed.

The topic, however, is expected to be a major point of discussion when GOP lawmakers meet for their retreat next week.

Russia’s war in Ukraine was also discussed at Friday’s luncheon. Varadkar — who worked in a House office during a Washington summer program in 2000 — underscored Ireland’s support for Kyiv and thanked the U.S. for leading “the free world” amid the conflict.

The battle between Ukraine and Russia has become a contentious topic within the GOP, with top figures differing on whether or not supporting Kyiv should be a priority for the party. McCarthy has expressed support for Ukraine but not a “blank check for the country.” And earlier this week, former President Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) both said that supporting Ukraine amid the conflict is not a vital national interest.

“Mr. Speaker, today we must also remember how Russia is attempting to deny the people of Ukraine any kind of future through its brutal invasion,” Varadkar said. “While Ireland is a militarily neutral country, we’re not politically neutral in the face of violations of international law and human rights.”

Biden has vowed to support Ukraine “as long as it takes,” and he thanked Varadkar for standing with Ukraine during a meeting in the Oval Office earlier Friday.

Varadkar echoed that sentiment during remarks at the St. Patrick’s Day luncheon on Capitol Hill.

“We stand with Ukraine because silence means surrender,” Varadkar said. “And we’ll not stay silent when liberty, freedom and fundamental human rights are being attacked. So we will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

—Updated at 5:23 p.m.

Tags Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Leo Varadkar Nancy Pelosi Tip O'Neill

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