Fiscal Cliff: It's Biden, McConnell to the Rescue Again

 

In the end, it came down to two 70-year-old men, talking on the phone.

They are not the most powerful men in Washington: Each, in his own way, is a second fiddle. Joseph R. Biden Jr. is vice president. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is the Senate minority leader, in charge only of the senators who are not in charge. But these two men — rivals, colleagues and wary friends for almost 28 years — were the ones who finally struck a deal to end the "fiscal cliff" crisis.

The New Year's Eve agreement between Biden and McConnell provided a glimpse at the ways that personality quirks and one-to-one relationships can still change the course of Washington politics. On the Hill's most dramatic night in 16 months, these things seemed to matter far more than raw power.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, didn't have enough political muscle to strike a bargain with the president. The president was so intent on showing his muscle that he alienated the Republicans he was supposed to bargain with. Those two, the most powerful Democrat and the most powerful Republican in Washington, tried to strike a historic, sweeping deal, and failed.

Instead, they got what Biden and McConnell could wrangle on the phone at the last minute: a small deal that solved few of the big problems outside the immediate crisis.

Starting Sunday, Biden and McConnell talked repeatedly, hammering out agreements on a complicated array of topics: income tax rates, inheritance taxes, huge budget cuts set to take effect in January. While they talked, the rest of Congress waited. And waited. And complained.

"There are two people in a room deciding incredibly consequential issues for this country, while 99 other United States senators and 435 members of the House of Representatives — elected by their constituencies to come to Washington — are on the sidelines," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said on the Senate floor in the afternoon.

Thune was wrong about one thing: In a day of phone conversations, Biden and McConnell were never actually in the same room. But Thune was right that legislators had, essentially, been cut out of the legislative process. By the time a deal was announced, about 8:45 p.m. Monday, there was little time for anything but a vote."At least we would have had an opportunity to debate this, instead of waiting now until the eleventh hour," Thune said.

By now, however, nobody on Capitol Hill should have been surprised at how this would end.

Monday marked the third time in two years that a congressional cliffhanger had ended with a bargain struck by McConnell and Biden. The first time came in late 2010, during a year-end showdown over the expiring Bush-era tax cuts. The second was in August 2011, during the fight over the debt ceiling. In both cases, Washington's new power players — Obama and the tea-party-infused House GOP — couldn't reach an agreement. They were saved by a bargain struck in Washington's oldest tradition, not much changed from the days of Henry Clay except the size of the dollar figures and the presence of a phone.

Two men, both with 20-plus years in the capital, working out the final touches alone.

"Happy new year!" Biden said to awaiting reporters, as he swept in to brief Democratic senators on the deal, around 9 p.m. "Don't you enjoy being here New Year's Eve?"

Washington's two unofficial "closers" are remarkably different. The smiling, garrulous Biden has a reputation for empathy: You could spot him as a politician from 40 yards away. McConnell is reserved, deliberate and calculating. He looks like a politician only within the arcane, closed world of the Senate.

But their relationship was built over 24 years spent together in the Senate, where Biden served as a Democrat from Delaware.

"It's not so much a buddy thing," one senior Republican aide said. "The two of them can do business, they can find solutions together."

McConnell, aides say, came to see Biden as somebody who could make decisions fast, and who could cut deals without lecturing his opponents or spiking the ball afterward. Biden, in turn, came to see McConnell as somebody who didn't over-promise. He always knew what his supporters would accept. "Mitch knows how to count better than anyone I have ever known," Biden told an audience in 2011, during a visit to the center named after McConnell at the University of Louisville. The audience laughed. "This is not a joke. When Mitch says, 'Joe, I have 41 votes,' or 'I have 59 votes,' it is the end of the discussion . . . He has never once been wrong in what he's told me."

In this crisis, the two men were called upon when other politicians, far more central to the drama, had faltered.

First, Boehner failed the counting test. Before Christmas, the speaker sought to rally his fractious House behind a "Plan B" to raise taxes only for people making more than $1 million per year. They didn't. Boehner pulled the bill and backed out of negotiations. Then, Washington's top two Democrats — Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid D-Nev., — proved unwieldy negotiators. Reid seemed to have trouble coming up with a fast counteroffer to a proposal from McConnell. Obama, fresh off reelection, was defiant in public and in private. Even on Monday, as a deal seemed to be drawing closer, Obama gave a televised speech in which he noted that Republicans had already caved on their key demand never to raise tax rates.

To some Republicans, that seemed like a premature and unseemly celebration.

"This is so disappointing. Why wouldn't the president be sitting down with people working out this agreement instead of having a Republican-bashing event?" asked Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

For Biden and McConnell, the catch is that — like the two men's previous deals — this agreement doesn't solve Washington's biggest problems related to taxes and spending. The second fiddles had neither the time, nor the power, to do that.

Instead, they scheduled a new crisis in place of the old one, just a few weeks away. It appeared that the fight over budget cuts would be put off for only a few weeks, to coincide with a new showdown over the debt ceiling."This is disgusting, and everybody involved should be embarrassed," said Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, as the deal was coming together. The embarrassment, LaTourette said, would stem from the fact "that we're talking about this small-ball — it's not even small ball, it's a Ping-Pong ball — of a proposal. I think it's awful."As he emerged from a Democratic caucus meeting shortly after 11 p.m., Biden spoke briefly with reporters and photographers who awaited him.

"I feel really very, very good about how things are going to go," Biden said. "Having been in the Senate as long as I have, there's two things you shouldn't do: You shouldn't predict how the Senate's going to vote before they vote. You're not going to make a lot of money. And number two, you surely shouldn't predict how the House is going to vote. So I feel very, very good. I think we'll get a very good vote tonight. But happy new year, and I'll see you all maybe tomorrow."

Asked what he said to wavering members of the Democratic caucus, Biden smiled and said: "I said this is Joe Biden and I'm your buddy."

---

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
Danielle George is both science professor and presenter
people
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015