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Biden calls on friends in Senate in effort to jump-start ‘fiscal cliff’ solution

Vice President Joseph R. Biden's 36 years in the Senate are coming in handy this week for the Obama administration.

While President Obama's No. 2 couldn't prevent Washington from hurtling off the "fiscal cliff," his deep ties to the Senate and trusted relationships with scores of Republicans may help engineer a softer landing later this week.

In fact, it was "Sheriff Joe" who came to the rescue when Senate GOP leaders were fed up with negotiating with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and months of discussions between Speaker John A. Boehner and the president had failed to produce a deal that could pass the House.

When talks between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Mr. Reid broke down Sunday, the GOP leader said he was ready to tango — but just couldn't find a real dance partner.

Desperate to start jump-start negotiations, he reached out to Mr. Biden, who served in the Senate from 1973 to 2009. Less than a day later, he reported a first burst of progress and compromise.

"Yesterday, after days of inaction, I came to the floor and noted we needed to act, but that I needed a dance partner," Mr. McConnell said Monday in remarks on the Senate floor. "So I reached to the vice president in an effort to get things done.

"I'm happy to report that the effort has been a successful one and ... we are very close to an agreement," he added.

Late Monday afternoon, Republican senators were crediting Mr. Biden with negotiating in good faith and restarting serious talks.

"Things were completely stalled out until Sen. McConnell reached out to Biden and he stepped in," said Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican and chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. "It showed how fruitless and futile it was to continue dealing with the Senate majority leader."

But Mr. Biden also got flack from liberal Democrats and outside pressure groups who said he should stick to the $250,000 income threshold that Mr. Obama had successfully campaigned on instead of agreeing to roll back taxes on households making $450,000 and below.

Late into New Year's Eve, the late criticism from the left was still causing Mr. Biden headaches as he huddled with Senate Democrats to persuade them to declare victory on raising taxes and accept the higher threshold.

The meeting occurred just before Congressional leaders and the White House announced they had struck a final deal.

Even though the House was out of session and the country technically fell off the fiscal cliff, there's still a little time left this week to prevent any serious damage. Congress can retroactively correct the tax hikes set to kick in Tuesday and also has one more day to stave off the automatic spending cuts that kick in Wednesday.

Mr. Biden's political stock could soar after his role in striking such a critical bipartisan compromise, and in retrospect, could make his series of notorious first-term blunders and gaffes seem like small potatoes.

Cutting through the partisan rancor to get a deal could even boost his reported plans to seek his party's nomination to succeed Mr. Obama in 2016.

"That D.C. insiders on a bipartisan basis think highly enough of Biden's political talents and credibility that they want him involved at a time when the nation is perilously close to the fiscal cliff, that's an impressive recognition," said Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential scholar and a professor at St. Louis University School of Law. "This is truly a historic position for a vice president to be called upon to fulfill."

Even though he knows Mr. Biden well, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, said the vice president never talks to him about plans to run for president in 2016.

When asked whether the vice president's key role in jump-starting talks this week would improve his presidential prospects, Mr. Cardin said only that he would like to see the finer points of any debt-reduction package.

"We'll have to see the details of the deal," Mr. Cardin said.

When asked whether Mr. Biden's last-minute role in the negotiations could strengthen a future White House bid, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and the longest-serving senator, said the vice president is focused on helping prevent an economic crisis for the country, not his political future.

"Knowing Joe, he's more concerned right now about getting a deal for the American people," Mr. Leahy said.

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