- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009

In just one night last week, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spent more time on the Senate floor cajoling senators than Dick Cheney did in his eight years as vice president.

It was mostly a victory lap. The budget, which was the business of the day, already had earned enough votes to pass comfortably - but his presence on the floor, chatting with Republicans and Democrats before taking the president's chair for the final vote, underscored the value of having the former six-term senator on the Democrats' bench as a friendly enforcer of discipline.

“We've not only got Obama, we've got Biden - and that is really important,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, told reporters in the run-up to the budget vote.

He credited his former colleague with helping keep two Senate Democrats from wavering on the final vote.

“I had a couple I needed to call. I had a couple of bad signs from a couple of my senators,” said Mr. Reid, who asked the vice president to talk with the two Democrats. “That was so important for me. He called me back and said, 'They're both going to vote for it because I asked them to.' ”

Mr. Biden has carved out a role in the young administration combining the ceremonies of the office with some heavy diplomacy and major domestic roles.

He laid the groundwork for President Obama's Afghanistan-Pakistan plan through face-to-face meetings with leaders of those nations and of NATO allies. Mr. Obama tapped his No. 2 to run a middle-class task force and to make sure the government properly manages the billions of dollars of grant money in the stimulus spending package.

On Tuesday, Mr. Biden took on the role of surrogate defender while Mr. Obama was overseas. He told CNN that Mr. Cheney was “dead wrong” when he said Mr. Obama has raised the risk of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Mr. Biden said Mr. Obama has improved national security by repairing the U.S. image abroad.

Republicans say Mr. Reid's embrace of the vice president's assistance is at odds with his tone of a few months ago, when the majority leader told the Las Vegas Sun that Mr. Biden wouldn't be regularly attending Senate Democrats' weekly policy lunches. That was meant to mark a contrast with Mr. Cheney, who regularly sat down with Senate Republicans.

Mr. Cheney was focused on enforcing White House discipline and preferred to work behind the scenes, Mr. Reid and others said, but Mr. Biden is putting himself at the disposal of legislative leaders to advance the Democrats' agenda.

A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal operations, said the vice president made phone calls and held personal meetings with several senators about the budget; had a private lunch with Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, at the White House; and lobbied senators on some of the amendments offered. He also made 10 calls to what the official described as “the toughest targets in the House” and had a private meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

House and Senate budgets passed with strong Democratic support, though not one Republican voted for the measures.

Joel K. Goldstein, a professor at the St. Louis University School of Law who studies the vice presidency, said Mr. Biden is following the model set by Walter F. Mondale, who as vice president acted as a general adviser to President Carter and kept a portfolio of issues he shepherded.

Like some of his predecessors, thanks to his long career in the Senate, Mr. Biden can work with both parties to shore up support for the president's agenda.

Biden's approach in a way is more to reach across the aisle and to keep the lines of communication open, and to try and help the president's program in that way,” Mr. Goldstein said.

Mr. Biden, in his interview with CNN, said he has tried to cut a different path than Mr. Cheney. Mr. Biden said his predecessor ran his own operation that at times seemed to compete with President Bush.

“Everybody talks about how powerful Cheney was,” the vice president said. “His power weakened America, in my view.”

The vice president's chief role as laid out by the Constitution is to preside over the Senate and to break tie votes. Filibuster rules have reduced the number of situations for tie votes, and vice presidents rarely take the president's chair, which made Mr. Biden's appearance last week all the more stark.

During his more than two hours on the Senate floor in the run-up to the final budget vote, the vice president spent 20 minutes in mostly one-on-one conversation with Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, 15 minutes with Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, and some time with more than a dozen other senators.

When he took the chair to preside over the final vote, the gaffe-prone vice president mistook Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who served 12 years with Mr. Biden in the Senate, for a Nebraskan.

“I've been away too long,” Mr. Biden said as the senators chuckled.

Republicans said it was a sign of Democrats' desperation to have Mr. Biden persuade senators to toe the party line, though the final vote tallies in the House and Senate showed strong support among rank-and-file Democrats behind the policies of the White House and congressional leaders.

The White House has given Mr. Biden a substantial portfolio and scheduled frequent joint appearances with the president. It also issues a daily schedule for Mr. Biden.

“A vice president is only going to be fully helpful if it's clear to everybody he or she is important to the president. So if the president wants the vice president to be in the position to help with foreign leaders, to help on the Hill, to help dealing with other government officials, he's got to send the message that the vice president matters to him,” Mr. Goldstein said.

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