When Joe and Jill Biden moved to Washington on Jan. 20 as he took up his duties as vice president, they moved their bed down from the family home in Wilmington, Del. But unlike their predecessors, the Gores and the Cheneys, who already lived in the Washington suburbs and had houses filled with furniture they were ready to transfer to the official residence on Massachusetts Avenue, the Bidens had empty rooms to fill.
His 92-year-old mother remains at their Wilmington home and the Bidens have been back there every weekend except the last, when he was in Munich to address an annual security conference that is an important gathering of Russian and NATO officials.
So, while the Obama administration labored to move its giant fiscal stimulus bill through the House and the Senate, Jill Biden, who is starting her new college teaching job in Northern Virginia, tried to select the new furniture that the family will live with for the next four years.
When I saw her husband for an hour Tuesday at his White House office, he was still a little jet-lagged from the rapid-turnaround trip to Germany.
But after three decades as an every-night Senate commuter, Biden was reveling in two new experiences: living close to work and “being part of the administration.” The latter takes much more getting used to than the former.
As the senior White House official with an office in the Capitol, Biden has been in the middle of the effort to round up stimulus votes. That has been relatively familiar work on the Senate side of the Capitol, where Biden spent 36 years and knows the personalities and political ticks of all but the newly elected freshmen – and where, he said, “I think all of them trust me.”
The House is something entirely different. Biden said he got to know a few of the senior members of the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees that he would meet in conference to iron out differences between the chambers on bills. But the House member he knows best is Mike Castle, the Delaware congressman-at-large and a Republican. Castle is one of the few surviving moderates on that side of the aisle, a throwback to the time when states from Maryland to Maine liked to send progressive Republicans to Congress. He is a respected legislator but of limited value as a guide to the current House Republican conference, dominated by conservatives.
Biden, an admitted amateur as an analyst of the House, said he thinks some Republicans “see the administration’s failure as their success.” Others have “genuine philosophical disagreements with what we are trying to do.” And still others press for greater reliance on tax cuts to bolster their side in the internal debate about the best formula for Republican electoral victories.
What surprised me was Biden’s puzzlement – and mild exasperation – with the lessons he is learning about House Democrats.
It was so long ago I can’t remember when I first heard a veteran House Democrat repeat this bit of folk wisdom: “The House Republicans are not the enemy. They are the opposition. The enemy is the Senate.”
When I quoted that line to Biden, he exclaimed, “They really mean it,” as if he were hearing it for the first time.
A day before the House and Senate negotiators reached agreement, Biden went on to say he was “a little surprised” to find so little understanding and no sympathy at all among House Democrats for the compromises in the stimulus bill needed to persuade a handful of Senate Republicans to join the Democrats in blocking a filibuster.
“The House guys complain that you (in the administration) are rolling us,” Biden told me. “We’re not rolling anyone. We’re looking to get 60 votes.”
I do not know if Barack Obama, who served four years in the Senate but never in the House, shared his running mate’s sense of puzzlement and frustration with the House.
But it was probably a lucky break for the administration that Rahm Emanuel was also around to work the House. Obama’s chief of staff was the No. 4 man in the House Democratic leadership. If anyone could placate Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her lieutenants who run the key committees, it was probably Emanuel. This week was the first big test.