Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., spent part of Wednesday afternoon being addressed as “Mr. President,” presiding in his role as president of the Senate during a two and a-half-hour tribute to his years of public service.
He later took pains to show he isn’t overly attached to the salutation, dousing speculation he might make a run for the Oval Office in 2020 by telling reporters he had no intention of running.
In a week filled with testimonials, senators’ remembrances of the Delaware Democrat covered his Irish heritage, his closeknit family, numerous personal anecdotes and Biden’s ability to work across partisan lines.
“He’s been able to cultivate many unlikely friendships across the aisle, with Jesse Helms, with Strom Thurmond, with me,” McConnell said, the senators and onlookers laughing in response. McConnell looked directly at Biden when he wrapped up his speech by saying Biden is a true friend.
Biden sat in the chair, recognizing each senator as they stood. He jotted down notes on pieces of paper in front of him, and fiddled with a paper clip as the senators spoke.
Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and about 20 Democrats and Republicans gave tributes on the floor, with additional lawmakers inserting them into the record.
Biden’s family, including his wife Dr. Jill Biden, looked on from the public gallery. His daughter Ashley was seen wiping away tears as Reid spoke.
But there was plenty of laughter, too. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., told a story about Biden dropping him off at the Amtrak train station in Wilmington, Delaware (which Biden used nightly while he served in the Senate).
Biden noticed Durbin had an incorrect ticket, so he ran to get him a new one. As the train pulled up, Biden ran up to Durbin with Secret Service agents in tow, and handed him a ticket.
“The people on the train had no idea who I was,” Durbin said. “But they knew if the vice president was carrying my ticket, I must be somebody important.”
Sen. Barbara A. Mikuslki, D-Md., summed up Biden’s ability to forge friendships.
“You have a unique ability to make a visceral connection to people,” Mikulski said. “I think your connection is hand to hand, heart to heart.”
Those personal connections likely aided Biden during his time as vice president, when he was dispatched to Capitol Hill to negotiate with leaders.
McConnell said his staff knew that “it was time to get serious” when he said, “Get Joe on the phone,” in a nod to their dealmaking throughout Barack Obama’s presidency.
Former Sen. Ted Kaufman was also on the floor. Kaufman served as Biden’s Senate chief of staff and was appointed to Biden’s Senate seat after Biden was tapped for the vice presidency. The Democratic senators from Delaware, Chris Coons and Tom Carper, served as bookends for the speeches.
Many of the senators referenced Biden’s resiliency in the face of tragedy, noting his first wife and daughter were killed and his two sons injured in a car accident shortly before he was sworn into the Senate. Senators also repeatedly noted that a section of the 21st Century Cures Act the chamber had just cleared is named after his son, Beau, who passed away from cancer in May 2015.
Wednesday’s tribute was Biden’s second time in the presiding officer’s chair this week. He presided over a procedural vote on the Cures bill on Monday. But, Biden told reporters Monday, the first time he sat in the chair he was nearly arrested.
While in college, Biden came to the District of Columbia to visit friends. One Saturday morning, he drove to the Capitol and check out the Senate chamber. No one was around to stop him, so Biden after entering decided to sit in the presiding officer’s chair.
”I was sitting in the chair and all of sudden this hand grabs me and puts me under arrest,” Biden said. The Capitol Police didn’t charge him because they realized he was “just a dumbstruck kid.”
Eight years later Biden was elected a senator. The first time he walked onto the floor after being sworn in, there wasn’t much going on.
“Without thinking I was walking through the same way, I walked through the same door [as eight years prior]. And, I give you my word, a cop grabbed me by the shoulder,” Biden said.
According to Biden, the officer told him, “I hope you don’t mind, senator. I arrested you eight years ago. Congratulations.”
Biden swore the story is true. “Absolute truth,” Biden said. “My word as a Biden.”
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