Joe Biden still has one foot in the Senate; may be key to healthcare

Unlike his predecessor, Vice President Joe Biden does not attend the weekly lunches in the Senate. Instead, he’s in the Senate gym, across the dinner table and — constantly — on the phone with members of the upper chamber.

When Biden can’t make it to the Senate, senators come to him: for breakfasts and lunches at the vice presidential residence, private chats at the White House and personal guided tours of the West Wing.

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A senator for 36 years, Biden’s relationship with his former colleagues has been key to President Barack Obama’s first 13 months in office. From the stimulus plan to the Iraq war to  peace  in the Middle East , Biden has been a critical go-between for an administration that has struggled to push its agenda through a Senate controlled by the same party.

With Democrats poised to use reconciliation to pass healthcare reform, Biden’s deep friendships on both sides of the aisle will be put to the test.

Biden, in his role as Senate president, could cast tie-breaking votes and overrule the Senate parliamentarian.

Democrats say it won’t be a situation Biden will relish.

Republicans are strongly hinting they are prepared to paralyze the Senate if Democrats force through healthcare reform. Interviews with more than a dozen Democrats paint a picture of a vice president who enjoys his new role but has had trouble letting his past life go.

“He speaks almost reverentially of the place,” said Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), Biden’s longtime chief of staff and interim replacement. “He’s just a Senate guy. He was a Senate guy when he was here, and he cares the same now that he’s out there. He’d never, ever tell anybody, ‘The president and I want you to do this.’ He’d never say that. First off, it’d never work. But it’s really because he just believes in the Senate and its role in the process and the importance of individual members.”

Kaufman and other Democrats say Biden has maintained his relationships with individual senators by coming to the Senate gym, by hosting meals at his home and especially by keeping the phone lines warm. He speaks most regularly — about two or three times a week — with Senate leaders like Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), to check the pulse of members’ moods and talk strategy.

While Biden was closest to senior members like John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), both of whom he worked with closely in his role as Foreign Relations Committee chairman, he has also reached out to rank-and-file members.

Even complete strangers have received the Biden touch. Shortly after inauguration, the vice president hosted the Senate’s newly elected freshmen at a dinner at his house.

“It was a way to check in with us and see how we were doing, and I appreciated that,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

Biden told The Hill he talks to senators “four, five, six times a week.”

“I don’t presume to give advice, but I talk to them about everything from basketball to foreign policy,” he said. “I talk to them all the time. I come up in the gym to work out with them. I have them come down. Both my Democrat and Republican friends. I enjoy this place so much. And I really have a lot of very good friends. You don’t just walk away from it.“

Biden also said he doesn’t keep his Senate relationships intact because of any order or request from Obama.

“No, are you kidding me? These men and women are my buddies,” he said. “I just miss them.”

Senate Republicans, by and large, respect Biden. They stress they disagree with his policies but agree he has been the linchpin in several of Obama’s accomplishments.

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They also endorse the view that Biden has purposely cut a dramatically different path from that of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney would attend Senate GOP lunches every week, Republicans recall, although he would rarely speak.

“I liked what Cheney did. Literally, three out of four times he would never say a word. Literally,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “Every now and then there would be something he thought he should share with us. But basically, he thought there should be freewheeling debate, and he’d get a good feel for what the Republicans were thinking.”

While Cheney was never instrumental in winning over any Democratic votes, Biden’s relationships paid off early for Obama.

When the administration was desperate for Republican support for the $787 billion stimulus plan after only a month in office last year, Biden helped win over Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and then-Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. When conservative Democrats then started to waver, it was Biden who sealed the deal by agreeing to oversee the stimulus’s implementation.

“There was a bunch of senators who said, ‘I’ll only vote for this if you can convince me that Joe’s the guy who I can talk to about this.’ ” said Kaufman.

“ ‘We want to make sure he’s the guy overseeing it.’ ”

On healthcare reform, Biden has used his friendships carefully, preferring a more behind-the-scenes role.

Biden reportedly was wary of tackling healthcare in Obama’s first year, but has been a team player.

When the administration was wooing centrist Republicans like Snowe and Collins last fall, Biden placed a friendly call to Collins to sound her out. When Collins eventually decided against the bill, Biden shrugged it off and gave her and her brother a personal tour of the West Wing during a White House Christmas party anyway — without mentioning the issue.

“It was a 45-minute tour, and it was so typically thoughtful and generous of him to do that,” Collins said. “He was on his way home, but he stopped and came back and did that. That’s emblematic of him.”

Elsewhere, on foreign policy, Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he has leaned on Biden’s expertise on Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in assisting the administration’s surge strategy in Afghanistan and the wind-down of the war in Iraq. Biden strongly backed the Iraq war in 2002.

On domestic policy, Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said Biden was critical in stitching together a fragile deal for a bipartisan commission to study the federal deficit. Although the Senate ultimately rejected the idea, Conrad said Biden helped pave the way for Obama to create the panel by executive order instead.

“He said, ‘If you’re not successful, what is it that would have credibility with you?’ ” Conrad said. “It was very diplomatic. He knows how this place works.”

On other domestic policy issues, Biden’s penchant for taking the train back and forth between his Wilmington, Del., home and Washington paid off in shaping infrastructure spending. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Biden’s longtime colleague, said the vice president helped persuade senators to commit to high-speed rail projects as part of the stimulus bill.

“The reason there’s a major commitment in the stimulus for high-speed rail is because of Joe Biden more than anyone,” said Carper.

However, at other times Biden has been careful to keep his distance. Shortly after taking office, Biden decided against attending the weekly lunches held by Senate Democrats — a show of deference to the legislative branch, if also a curious decision for a man so closely tied to his former colleagues.

Democrats say that while Biden is welcome at their lunches, they appreciate his respect for their independence.

“Hey, sure he’s got a toe in the legislative branch. But he’s in the executive branch,” said Levin. “There are moments when he’ll be close to us, he’ll be lobbying us. But he also respects the fact that we have two branches and a need to have checks and balances.”