Vice President Joseph Biden (right) gave a nearly hourlong speech to House Democrats at their retreat Friday, covering topics including the tone of political discourse, the Arizona shootings and life in the minority.
CAMBRIDGE, Md. — Vice President Joseph Biden extended a dinner invitation to the nine freshmen of the House Democratic Caucus, praised the party’s leadership and even apologized for tough votes Members had to take during wide-ranging remarks to House Democrats on Friday.
Introduced by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) as “A guy who besides [Rep.] Anthony Weiner [D-N.Y.] tends to speak his mind more than most of us,” Biden opened his remarks by praising Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
“Nancy, you’re a great friend and a great leader. Steny, you’re not much but I love you,” he deadpanned to roaring laughter. “Steny and I agree on almost everything, which scares everybody.”
Biden’s remarks, laced with self-deprecating retorts, were his first since being panned by the Caucus in December. Biden recalled that heated exchange, when he came to the Capitol to sell the party on the administration’s unpopular tax cut plan, and suggested his appearance in Maryland at the House Democratic retreat was under different circumstances.
“I want you to know that our discussion in the Caucus during the lame duck, I enjoyed it,” Biden said to roaring laughter.
The vice president added: “I’m here to listen. I’m here to hear what you think. I’m here to have a discussion because we all have to be on the same page. These are really difficult issues that we’re dealing with.”
With that, Biden praised Hoyer for helping lead an effort for Members to sit in bipartisan pairs during Tuesday’s State of the Union address. He took several minutes to praise Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who is recovering from being shot in the head two weeks ago, and recalled his own brain trauma when he suffered an aneurism two decades ago. Such personal experiences, Biden said, draw Members together.
“Those of us who love the Congress, we talk about it in ways that I think the public outside, I’m not sure they grasp or understand,” he said. “One of the things about this family is that ... we live each other’s losses.”
Biden also said that the tragic events in Tucson, Ariz., offer a reason for Members to reflect on the words they use and how they handle themselves during the most heated policy debates. Hearkening one of the same messages used by President Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign — “Words matter” — Biden pleaded with his fellow Democrats to tone down the heated rhetoric and strike more civil tones.
“One thing that’s happened, I think there is sort of generic recognition that we got to change the way we talk to one another,” Biden said, again drawing applause. “Tone matters. Words matter. And I’m not saying they matter necessarily to some guy who’s already deranged and will do something again. It matters in the way we’re going to respond to the problems of this country.”
Biden also gave a broad overview of his recent trip to the Middle East, a departure from the jobs and messaging focus of the weekend. He said the Obama administration is expected to withdraw the remaining 50,000 troops in Iraq by the end of the year but warned that civilian troops will have to stay in the region to help Iraqis build a sustainable government.
“Is this worth 4,439 fallen angels? Is this worth 32,000 wounded — 16,000 needing care the rest of their lives, as long as they live? Well only history will answer that,” Biden said. “But folks, you were handed the circumstance, and we intend on making good on two promises: One, ending our military presence there, and two, helping them as long as they want it to sustain a government that can function.”
Biden largely refrained from partisan attacks during his speech, except recalling once in 2002 when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld instructed Senate military attaches that they would be court-marshaled if they took Biden to Afghanistan. The vice president acknowledged it would be difficult if not impossible this year for the party to enact policies in the House, and he remembered to congratulate the nine new Democratic freshmen only when he was well into his nearly hourlong talk.
“By the way, you’re going to love [Rep.] John Carney,” Biden said, giving a special shout-out to his former aide who now holds Delaware’s at-large seat. “John, he won’t tell you, he used to work for me. And his wife, who’s way smarter than he is.”
A question-and-answer session with Members after the speech was closed to the press. But before closing his public remarks, Biden thanked the crowd for taking tough votes in the past and wished them well in the new Congress.
“Thank you all again for your hard work and your support of the administration last year,” he said. “I know that it’s not going to get any easier anytime soon.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.