This Democrat Could Be the McConnell Whisperer
The next two years may be when Joe gets his last, best chance to help run the show.
Joseph R. Biden Jr. is preparing to celebrate his 72nd birthday next week and has been sending really mixed signals about where he’d like to take his career in 2016. But regardless of whether he decides to launch his third uphill campaign for president, the 47th vice president of the United States is positioned by the force of his experience, personality and circumstance to be among the indispensable players of the 114th Congress.
Several scenarios in the midterm elections could have generated a 50-50 partisan split in the Senate, meaning Biden would have quite literally been trapped at the Capitol next year so he could be counted on to cast tie-breaking votes for his fellow Democrats on a potentially daily basis. (It’s a vice-presidential power he’s never exercised after almost six years on the job; his predecessor Dick Cheney provided the decisive vote for the Republicans eight times in the previous decade.)
Now that Republicans are certain of holding at least 53 (and possibly 54) seats come January, Biden’s telegenic services as presiding officer and deadlock-breaker might never be required. Instead, he may end up with a big reprise of his more consequential vice-presidential role — as the legislative deal-maker-in-chief.Painfully well understood is President Barack Obama’s minimal success at compromising with Republicans except in the most emergent circumstances. And in three of the most dire deadlocks of this decade, the accords reached at the last minute happened only after a frustrated president handed Biden his proxy.
- Extending the Bush-era income tax rates just before their expiration date at the end of 2010, in return for a boost in jobless benefits and cuts in payroll taxes designed to help the middle class.
- Raising the limit on the national debt hours before a potential default in the summer of 2011, in return for a decade of guaranteed spending limitations.
- Averting the fiscal cliff in the final hours of 2012, increasing taxes for the wealthiest but preserving some lower taxes for the vast majority of the nation.
In all three instances, it was the same person who sat across the table from (or traded calls with) Biden after belatedly taking up negotiating responsibility for the fractured Republicans: Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. And now, as the incoming Senate majority leader, there is no doubt he’ll insist on being the essential GOP gatekeeper for any bipartisan accomplishments of 2015 and 2016.
Given their mutual success as closers during times of legislative crisis, it would seem to make sense for the White House to deploy Biden as its McConnell whisperer in hopes of finding some less drama-fueled, but still meaningful legislative agreements.
And there’s some reason to believe that’s already happening. Last week, the vice president was dispatched to Houston for a speech touting the administration’s plans for boosting federal spending on public works, one of the most prominent areas both parties describe as ripe for deal-making next year. As a former Senate Judiciary chairman, Biden is well-versed in criminal sentencing policy — another area each side has labeled as worthy of a potential overhaul.
Besides, in the days since losing their Senate majority, plenty of Democrats have been unambiguous in laying the blame at the president’s feet — most prominent and pointed among them David Krone, chief of staff to Harry Reid, the majority leader who’s about to be demoted to be minority leader. “The president’s approval rating is barely 40 percent. What else more is there to say?” Krone asked The Washington Post. “I’m sorry. It doesn’t mean that the message was bad, but sometimes the messenger isn’t good.”
Such a criticism can easily be interpreted as a sign that Reid’s priorities in the new year will be all about winning back the Senate in 2016 and not at all about helping a lame-duck president burnish his legislative legacy by brokering deals with the GOP. In other words, Biden might fill a void Reid is voluntarily creating.
Republicans still won’t have a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes, so to advance legislation they may need to persuade half a dozen or more centrist Democrats to join their cause. Biden could be crucial to forming those sorts of coalitions.
Although there’s no evidence of a close personal friendship, McConnell and Biden were both known as proud guardians of the Senate’s powers and precedents during the 24 years they spent together in the chamber. All but four of those two dozen years were at times of divided government. The two were never really rivals because they weren’t on any of the same committees, and they honed their skills as legislative playmakers in mostly different policy areas. (They do both have international affairs expertise, though, Biden having chaired the Foreign Relations Committee and McConnell having run the Appropriations subcommittee that provides foreign aid.)
The poker-faced McConnell has been more openly positive about Biden than perhaps anyone else in the Obama administration. The senator invited the vice president to give a speech about the virtues of bipartisan legislating at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville. The GOP leader’s staff famously leaked a moment in the fiscal cliff drama when he phoned Biden in the West Wing and asked, “Does anyone down there know how to make a deal?” When their bargaining started, McConnell cooed before the cameras that he’d finally found a worthy “dance partner.”
For his part, the vice president called to congratulate McConnell on his lopsided re-election soon after the polls closed in Kentucky on Nov. 4, while the president didn’t connect with the senator until the next day. And then there was Biden’s behavior when the congressional leadership went to the White House for lunch a few days later. When Republicans launched into a lengthy argument against Obama acting unilaterally on immigration, and the president made clear his patience was running thin, Biden sought to smooth over the friction by asking how much time the GOP needed to pass its own bill — and reportedly was angrily cut off by the president.
That anecdote from The Associated Press offers as good a reminder as any about why Obama might decide against dispatching his vice president to try to become an activist 101st senator. Encouraging Biden to be Biden in situations he finds comfortable has proven to be a high-risk, not-routinely-high-reward proposition for congressional Democrats. Many of them grumble he gave away too much in those three big deals he cut with McConnell. They suspect his old-school ways have caused him to underestimate the confrontational spine of so many Hill Republicans.
But at the same time, other Democrats concede that permitting Biden to pursue his passion for practicing the art of the deal in the Capitol limelight could have virtue. Even if their side ceded some policymaking ground in the short term, they’d stand to gain as much praise as the Republicans from an electorate that’s already looking ahead to 2016 in expectation of nothing more than continued grinding gridlock.