Biden Became McConnell’s Dance Partner for Fiscal Talks

Jan. 2 (Bloomberg) -- Bloomberg's Hans Nichols breaks down the tax changes you can expect from the agreement to avert the fiscal cliff. He speaks on Bloomberg Television's "In The Loop."

Republican Leader Mitch McConnell decided it was time to deal directly with the White House when Senate budget talks stalled three days ago -- though not with President Barack Obama.

“I needed a dance partner,” McConnell said. “So I reached out to the vice president.”

Vice President Joe Biden, 70, had been tapped by Obama as a dealmaker before, to draw on Biden’s friendships, alliances and legislative experience from 36 years as a U.S. senator from Delaware.

He led Obama’s deficit-cutting task force in 2011 and before that oversaw distribution of stimulus funds. Obama has asked Biden to recommend ways to control gun violence following the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.

This time, it was McConnell’s turn. He looked to the vice president, with whom he served in the Senate for almost a quarter century, to help get the institution out of a jam. The clock was ticking down to a New Year’s deadline for automatic tax increases and spending cuts.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, couldn’t speak for Obama, and some Republicans voiced suspicions that Obama might be content to go over the so-called fiscal cliff and let them take the blame. Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, had met and failed to complete a deal. Boehner left McConnell to take over.

Eleventh Hour

In the eleventh hour, McConnell saw Biden as both the fastest conduit to Obama and a good-faith negotiator. The accord they reached Dec. 31 was passed early yesterday by the Senate, 89-8, as lawmakers seek to stave off more than $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts set to begin this month.

Then, it was up to the Republican-led House of Representatives to act. Biden met with House Democrats to shore up their support. With Republicans divided over whether to accept the Senate-passed plan, near unanimity among Democrats was key. The House approved the bill 257-167 with Democrats providing the margin to send it to Obama for his signature.

“The big thing is that McConnell knows Biden has 40 years of standing on what he says he’ll do,” said Ted Kaufman, a former Delaware senator and Biden’s Senate chief of staff for 22 years.

‘Give-and-Take’

Jared Bernstein, the vice president’s former chief economist, said McConnell and Biden have decades of familiarity and a shared interest in “give-and-take.”

“Simply put, they remember a day when politicians compromised,” Bernstein said.

Biden went to the Capitol on New Year’s Eve to pitch the budget agreement to Senate Democrats in a meeting that lasted almost two hours.

“I feel very, very good. I think we’ll get a very good vote tonight,” Biden said afterward. Asked what his selling point to caucus was, he joked: “me.”

Biden, who served in the Senate from 1973 until he took office in 2009 as vice president, has been parodied in popular culture for his long-windedness and a penchant for verbal gaffes and other distractions.

He remarked during last year’s election campaign that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wanted to put the middle class “back in chains,” which Republicans saw as a reference to slavery. He was in a suggestive photo taken at a campaign stop with a female biker appearing to sit on his lap.

Poll Numbers

A Bloomberg News poll taken Dec. 7-10 of 1,000 adults found 48 percent with a positive view of Biden. That compared with 55 percent for Obama.

Biden, who has run unsuccessfully for president twice, received a positive rating as a prospective presidential nominee from 32 percent of Americans and 57 percent of Democrats, the poll found.

In Congress, however, Biden’s roots are deep.

Over the years, he tangled with famed conservatives such as Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

They fought over crime bills, chemical weapons legislation and nuclear arms-reduction treaties with Russia, with conservatives butting heads with Biden over every line in legislation or treaties, even if there appeared to be no negotiating room.

Yet they weren’t foes. Each asked that Biden give the eulogy at their memorial services. Thurmond died in 2003; Helms in 2008.

‘Knowing People’

McConnell’s outreach to Biden also emphasizes a deficit of goodwill and shared experience between Obama -- who began his run for president in 2007 after two years as a senator from Illinois -- and senators.

“We’re in a business where knowing people helps” and Obama is “a hard guy to get to know,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

Graham said while Obama is “a good man,” he has not demonstrated a skill or enjoyment of negotiating. “He’s never had a legislative history of bringing people together or knocking heads. When I heard Joe Biden was given the green light, I thought, ‘There’s hope.’”

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said that by contrast, Obama’s public comments on the negotiations in recent days, including his announcement Dec. 31 that lawmakers were close to a deal, in which he was surrounded by supporters, fed resentments rather than goodwill.

‘The Clock’

“It’s so disappointing,” McCain said. “Why wouldn’t the president be sitting down with people, working out this agreement instead of having cheerleading and Republican-bashing events?”

Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said while interpersonal relationships make a difference in politics, deadlines trump everything.

“The most single important element in the whole discussion is the clock,” Levin said, standing outside the Senate chamber hours before the New Year’s deadline. “That good old clock,” he said, “which is doing its magic.”

On Dec. 30 at about 1:30 p.m., McConnell called Biden’s office and left a message for the vice president.

That was about 18 hours after Reid first told McConnell he couldn’t counteroffer Republicans’ latest proposal on the talks to avert the fiscal cliff, said a congressional Republican familiar with the negotiations.

Biden returned McConnell’s call within a half hour, and the two men spoke about a half dozen times before calling it a night around 12:45 a.m., said the official, who asked for anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to give a statement.

They were back on the phone by 6:30 a.m. Dec. 31, and they spoke multiple times -- sometimes one-on-one, sometimes with aides on the call, sometimes going over multiple provisions and sometimes speaking briefly.

While Congress missed voting by the deadline to avert the so-called fiscal cliff of tax increases and spending cuts, within 24 hours of McConnell’s first call to Biden the contours of the agreement had come together.

After the final votes in Congress yesterday, a smiling Biden stood behind Obama at the White House as the president pointed ahead to work on controlling gun violence, the debt ceiling and other issues where the vice president will again play a leading role.

To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Talev in Washington at mtalev@bloomberg.net; Roger Runningen in Washington at rrunningen@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net

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