LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. When President Obama finally announced a fiscal cliff agreement late Tuesday night, he thanked several people who helped make it happen. But the first person he mentioned was standing right next to him.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In particular, I want to thank the work that was done by my extraordinary vice president, Joe Biden.
WERTHEIMER: In the final hours of the standoff, Republican Mitch O'Connell asked Biden to help push a deal over the finish line. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The Republican leader's last name was misspoken. It is McConnell.] It was certainly not the first time the vice president has played that role. NPR's Ari Shapiro has this profile of Biden the back-room negotiator.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In 2009, Vice President Biden's chief economist Jared Bernstein was in an Oval Office meeting with the president. In the middle of the meeting, Bernstein remembers, the phone rang.
JARED BERNSTEIN: And it's Arlen Specter announcing that he's going to become a Democrat and give the Democrats the majority in the Senate. And the president took the call and was extremely pleased. And when he got off the phone, he said something to the effect of, you know, that was Joe Biden's work.
SHAPIRO: The White House has an entire Legislative Affairs office whose only job is to keep in touch with Congress. But often this vice president acts as a one-man shop doing the job on his own. Bernstein says everyone in the White House acknowledges this.
BERNSTEIN: Not only is it recognized as one of his strengths, but it's one of the reasons he's there. I mean, you're talking about a president who was in Washington and the Senate for all of two years, and a vice president who was there for 36.
SHAPIRO: President Obama has a reputation for being aloof, especially with members of Congress. He doesn't take lawmakers golfing. He doesn't invite them over for movie night. He doesn't schmooze. Vice President Biden is just the opposite. This week, he greeted incoming Senators and their families at the start of the new Congress. He gave bear hugs, workout advice, and facial caresses.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Come on, mom. Take a chance. Ruin your reputation here.
SHAPIRO: That side of Biden is easy to mock. Critics dismiss him as a gaffe-prone windbag who talks more than he listens. That's what veteran Republican staffer Jack Howard had heard before he met Biden in 1994. Howard was working for Newt Gingrich in the House at the time. Congress was deadlocked over a crime bill. They were still in the office deep into the August recess, when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden came over to help break the logjam.
JACK HOWARD: You know, my first reaction is why is he coming over here to try to help this? And my experience to that point had pretty much been only what I'd seen or heard from other people which, you know, was kind of a caricature of him. But all those notions were quickly dispelled within hours.
SHAPIRO: Howard says Biden was there until two or three in the morning, night after night, sleeves rolled up, pushing everyone towards a deal.
HOWARD: The Republican members quickly came to realize we could trust the guy. And he was a straight shooter. You know, he kind of knew what our limits were, and he was quite candid in terms of telling us what his limits were. And once you kind of get that established, that's the first real predicate to a successful negotiation.
SHAPIRO: That 1994 crime bill ultimately came through. It's one in a long series of deals from Biden's time in the Senate. He struck many of them with people who were his utter political opposite. And those relationships endured to the very end. Former Democratic Senator Ted Kaufman was Biden's chief of staff for years.
TED KAUFMAN: Senator Strom Thurmond, who I think has a reputation for being among the most conservative members of the Senate in history, and Jesse Helms, who probably would be in the top ten along with Thurmond, both of those senators had asked that when they died they'd asked Senator Biden to be one of the people to give the eulogy at their memorial service.
SHAPIRO: With that history, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made this final overture last weekend as a fiscal cliff deal seems to be slipping out of reach.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: The vice president and I have worked on solutions before and I believe we can again.
SHAPIRO: Sure enough, that's what happened - and it won't be the last time. Vice President Biden's next task is to lead the administration effort on gun control, an issue where Republicans and Democrats are at least as far apart as they were on the fiscal cliff. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.