Power play: Harry Reid sidelined Joe Biden
By: Jonathan Allen and Carrie Budoff Brown
October 8, 2013 05:01 AM EDT
When President Barack Obama laid out his strategy for the current debt-limit fight in a private meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this past summer, Reid stipulated one condition: No Joe Biden.
And while Biden attended the White House dog-and-pony show meeting last week with congressional leaders, Reid has effectively barred him from the backrooms, according to sources familiar with the situation.
The vice president’s disappearance has grown ever more noticeable as the government shutdown enters its eighth day with no resolution in sight and a debt limit crisis looms. Biden was once Democrats’ deal-maker-in-chief, designing budget pacts with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the summer of 2011 and New Year’s Eve 2013.
But Biden’s deals rubbed Democrats raw. He gave up too much, they said.
And for that, they have frozen him out — at least for now.
“None of the deals Biden has struck have aged well from the perspective of the Democratic Caucus,” said one Senate Democratic official aware of Reid’s face-to-face insistence that Biden be excluded.
A White House official said there are no negotiations at this point so there are no back channels for Biden to work. The official pointed to Biden’s inclusion in last week’s White House meeting with congressional leaders as an indication that the vice president is being kept in the loop.
Both Reid’s office and the vice president’s office declined to comment for this story.
But the Reid-Biden tension stands out because the two men spent so much time together in the Senate — 22 years — and because they’re on the same team. It is also yet another example of how deteriorating relationships among the nation’s top political leaders are making it harder to game out a solution to the fiscal crisis.
Reid doesn’t want Biden swooping in and negotiating another 11th-hour deal with Hill Republicans. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) remains at war with Reid, a feud that escalated when Democrats leaked private emails between Boehner and Reid aides last week. House Republicans might not accept any deal with Obama’s imprimatur. And McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who is up for re-election in 2014, is best suited by not appearing in photographs with any of the other Washington leaders.
Biden has been almost entirely out of the picture. While touring flood damage a couple of weeks ago, he told Coloradans that Washington’s budget talks were “probably going to scare the living devil out of you,” but sought to assure his audience that federal emergency efforts would continue regardless.
Last week, he walked with Obama to Taylor Gourmet, a lunch spot near the White House that was offering discounts for furloughed federal workers. And Biden, like other Obama administration officials, has cancelled appearances at political events such as the Human Rights Campaign’s gala this past weekend and a planned Monday fundraiser with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Biden has also cancelled his planned trip to campaign for New Jersey Senate candidate Cory Booker, the Booker campaign confirmed Tuesday.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, a liberal Democrat from Ohio, defended Biden by putting his deals in context of the demands being made by Republicans.
“I think he’s done the best we can get sometimes,” Brown said. “I’m not thrilled about any of the ways that some of these negotiations have gone because Republicans are willing to shut down the government and do the kinds of things they’re doing now and that’s a pretty strong hand to play when the other side knows you’re willing to go right up to the debt ceiling and maybe go past it and shut the government down.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) was not personally thrilled with the contours of last December’s Biden-negotiated fiscal-cliff deal, but generally praised Biden as a “force for good in enabling people to reason together.”
Still, the dynamics of the current fight might not be much different if Biden were fully engaged, he said.
“Our position is what it is and wouldn’t change simply as a result of the vice president being involved,” Blumenthal said. “It’s also the president’s position, and that may be why he hasn’t been involved.”
In December, McConnell went around Reid — and straight to Biden — to get a better arrangement for Republicans.
The GOP goal was to lock in Bush-era tax rates for as many Americans as possible, while Democrats hoped to raise tax rates on people earning more than $250,000 a year and delay the implementation of automatic “sequester” spending cuts that has been mandated by an earlier Biden-McConnell agreement.
But Biden, negotiating for the White House with McConnell, agreed instead to a compromise that permanently froze tax rates for families earning income up to $450,000 per year while halting sequestration’s severe spending cuts for only two months.
“You can see Sen. Reid’s thinking,” said one Democratic aide. “Vice President Biden negotiated it down to two months. That’s not negotiation. That’s capitulation. The entire caucus was furious.”
Obama endorsed the deal, citing the more than $600 billion in new revenues agreed to by Republicans who refused to entertain new taxes only a few weeks earlier.
Most Democrats on Capitol Hill, including Reid, also backed the plan. But many had reservations at the time. More have since experienced buyer’s remorse, believing it has made it more difficult to get Republicans to agree to increase taxes or spending.
Sequestration kicked into effect on March 1, and Democrats are mostly resigned to living under its spending caps for the time being.
At one time, White House officials insisted to Democrats on Capitol Hill that Republicans would rush to abandon the limits because they forced cuts to military programs. Now, the White House is asking House Republicans to restore funding to the government at sequestration levels, with no other strings attached.
With Biden pushed to the side, Reid has taken the reins for congressional Democrats. And they seem happy with the arrangement. Asked whether Biden should be more engaged, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) framed his response around Reid instead.
“The majority leader’s done a first-rate job,” Wyden said.
Reid has been vigilant in ensuring that Biden isn’t in a position to fold. When Reid was leaving the White House meeting with congressional leaders last week, his eyes grew wide, according to a source present.
He was informed that Biden had exited with McConnell.