The Biden Whisperer

by Robert Costa

At the eleventh hour, the fate of fiscal-cliff negotiations was determined by a friendship.

Here’s what happened: On Saturday night, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell submitted an offer to Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Reid was expected to counter by Sunday. When that offer never came, the talks nearly collapsed.

That’s when McConnell called the veep.

“I need a dance partner,” McConnell explained, in a Sunday speech.

McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden served together in the Senate for two decades, so they have a long history. Biden is an extrovert from Delaware, and McConnell is a reserved southerner, but they are both power brokers of the old school.

Over the course of many phone calls, Biden and McConnell cut a bipartisan deal. They spoke several times on Sunday afternoon, and then continued to talk late into the evening, past midnight. They haggled, then haggled some more.

Finally, on Monday morning, they had a breakthrough. According to the Washington Post, tax rates would expire on joint-filers who make more than $450,000 in annual income. Unemployment insurance, a key issue for Democrats, would be extended.

As of Monday afternoon, the final figures remain debatable, and elements of the estate tax and the defense sequester are still being negotiated. But the consensus within both chambers is that a deal should be coming to the floor soon.

It’s a story as old as Washington. As Lyndon Johnson once said, “Power is where power goes.” Though Biden wasn’t part of the negotiations until the last minute, McConnell sensed that the vice president could push a deal if Reid stalled.

Later Monday, the Senate is expected to vote on the Biden-McConnell plan. Should it pass, it’ll head to the House, where it will likely face a series of challenges, especially from conservatives, many of whom are opposed to any rate increases.

In the meantime, McConnell and Biden have emerged as the dealmakers. Congressional Republicans didn’t get the spending cuts and entitlement reforms they had originally sought, but they were able to raise the threshold on tax-rate increases.

For Republicans, the hope is that the upcoming standoff over the debt limit will be a better opportunity to demand cuts. “We will have more leverage during the debt ceiling, so this has become a debate about rates,” says a Senate GOP insider.

Of course, many conservatives are unhappy with how McConnell and Biden negotiated in private, but McConnell allies say the talks were a last, best option, and not McConnell’s preference. “It was the only way,” says a top Republican senator.

Others aren’t so sure. “The Senate is an animal that is highly dysfunctional at best,” says Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, a conservative Republican. “We’ve been outsiders looking in,” adds a conservative Senate aide.

Speaker John Boehner’s confidants, however, are optimistic.“Look, the vice president, as a former senator, was always the obvious conduit,” says Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma. “It’s a positive sign that something is happening.”