Late in the game, Biden gets the call

Peter Baker / New York Times News Service /

Another year, another fourth-quarter summons off the fiscal bench for Vice President Joe Biden.

The late entry of Biden into the tax and spending talks that have consumed the capital over the last two months recalls his role in the debt crisis of 2011 and again seems to have been critical toward cutting through the deadlock.

Biden was handed the ball not by President Barack Obama but by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, who called the vice president after growing frustrated by negotiations with the Democratic majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. McConnell and Biden have had good relations going back to their years together in the Senate.

As soon as the talks boiled down to Biden and McConnell, the path to a tentative agreement on taxes became relatively short. The two talked late into the night Sunday, with their last call around 12:45 a.m.

Biden and McConnell were back on the phone at 6:30 a.m. Monday, and by the afternoon Obama and McConnell were reporting a near deal.

The vice president and the senator had agreed on a compromise to raise some tax rates, renew a variety of tax credits, increase the estate tax on the wealthy and extend unemployment insurance. But the two remained in talks about how long to postpone automatic spending cuts due to take effect this week.

It was not as if Biden had not been part of the jockeying over the two months before the call from McConnell.

He sat in on the meetings and advised the president on what to do. But he was largely a secondary figure as long as the action was centered on the House, with Speaker John Boehner as the main Republican negotiator.

Once Boehner gave up and handed off the issue to McConnell, the vice president’s long history in the Senate put him back on the field.

Last year, Obama gave Biden the task of negotiating with Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, for a way out of a confrontation over the nation’s debt ceiling, but they failed to come up with a resolution, and Obama and Boehner stepped in.

After the two of them failed to reach a grand bargain, Biden and McConnell came up with an agreement that resolved the issue for the moment but set up the automatic spending cuts that take effect this week unless the two sides come up with an agreement to stop them.

The tandem of Biden and McConnell is not a result of any ideological affinity. But McConnell has a strained relationship at best with the other two main Democratic players, Obama and Reid, leaving the vice president as his best “dancing partner.”

“They have a good relationship,” said a senior White House official who asked not to be identified discussing continuing talks. “It’s borne fruit before.”

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