In his negotiating two-step, McConnell had found a willing partner in Biden. The call to Biden set off a fresh round of offers, counteroffers, and concessions. They spoke as late as 12:45 a.m. on Monday, retreated for a few hours of sleep, before another call that began before 7 a.m. Within about 24 hours, Biden and McConnell had settled on what amounted to the framework for an agreement – although they never engaged face to face.
At 9:15 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, Biden trekked to the Hill to huddle with Senate Democrats to pitch the compromise he had reached with McConnell. The plan would make permanent the Bush tax cuts for those earning less than $450,000, expand certain tax credits for low-income Americans, set the estate tax at 40 percent, and revise the Alternative Minimum Tax.
Reid didn’t plan to do the heavy lifting of selling the deal that he didn’t cut. That job was left to Biden. “I suspect he’s doing most of the talking,” Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said of the vice president as the meeting was underway.
The final package, which cleared the Senate in the early hours of 2013, also included concessions that Reid had refused, including a delay of the automatic cuts, known as the sequester, for only two months instead of at least a year.
“We gave too much away,” the Senate Democratic aide said of the accord. It passed in an 89-8 landslide, including Reid’s aye vote, anyway.
For Biden, it was a triumphant moment. It was his latest major compromise crafted with McConnell, following the two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts in 2010 and the debt-limit deal in the summer of 2011. Biden has earned the nickname the “McConnell whisperer” across Washington.
“McConnell is far more comfortable cutting deals with the vice president than he is with Senator Reid,” said Jim Manley, a former top Reid adviser.
Biden is considered a possible 2016 presidential candidate, and the episode amounted to a presidential moment: He was called to swoop in at the last minute to save taxes from rising on nearly all Americans, and he succeeded. “No doubt about it, this could be very helpful to him if he decides to run in 2016,” Manley said.
But just beneath the surface, there is some quiet grumbling among some Senate Democrats and the Left that Biden was as interested in striking a deal as its details.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, one of the eight no votes, has been one of the few to speak out publicly against the concessions that Democrats made to strike a compromise. He complained that the administration traded permanent GOP-friendly tax policy– the extension of tax rates for those below $450,000 – for temporary Democratic priorities. “In essence, this agreement locks in a tax structure that is grossly unfair to middle-class Americans,” Harkin said in a statement after the vote.
But with Obama’s and Biden’s imprimatur, it passed the Senate with ease. Asked on New Year’s Eve what he was telling Democratic senators to win their support, Biden told reporters, “I said, ‘This is Joe Biden, and I’m your buddy.’ ” He was back the next morning doing the same with House Democrats.