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Joe Biden: Senate tie-breaker?

By Stephen Collinson, CNN
updated 4:49 PM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Joe Biden could play a key role in an evenly divided Senate
  • Biden would keep an evenly divided Senate in Democratic hands

Washington (CNN) -- For Joe Biden, an evenly divided Senate would be a BFD.

If Tuesday's midterm elections result in a Senate split, the vice president will suddenly find himself in one of his favorite places: the spotlight. Biden would become a crucial player in the Senate, providing the tie-breaking vote on key bills and keeping the chamber in Democratic hands for the twilight years of President Barack Obama's administration.

For a politician who spent 36 years in the Senate and has run into trouble conforming to the constraints of being Obama's No. 2, a divide could be a welcome twist to a career that has often confounded expectations.

"Clearly, he is a creature of the Senate," said Ted Kaufman, Biden's former chief of staff who filled in as Delaware senator when his boss became vice president. "I can't think of a better person to be in that position. I know he would relish it."

It's rare for an election to result in an even split in the 100-seat Senate, turning control over to the vice president's party. The last time that happened was after the 2000 election, when Dick Cheney's role as a tiebreaker solidified a GOP majority. That only continued for a few months before a moderate Republican switched parties and gave Democrats full control of the Senate.

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This year, the GOP needs to post a net gain of six seats to control the chamber and Republicans appear to be on track to do that. But their efforts are being muddied by the enduring strength of Democratic candidates in Kentucky and Georgia, who are within striking distance of claiming Republican seats -- raising the potential of a split Senate.

Biden on standby

And even if one party wins a slim majority, Biden could find himself on standby for much of the next two years. Deaths or absences among members -- and the possibility that several independents could switch parties and scramble the Senate's partisan math -- will raise the odds that Biden may be called upon.

Biden's role would mostly be limited to casting tie-breaking votes -- not delving into the nitty gritty of legislating. And, of course, tie-breaking votes might be rare in a Senate where most bills now require 60 votes to proceed.

But any additional time in the Senate would play to Biden's strengths. Few men in history have adored the clubby chamber as much as Biden and he relishes opportunities to cut deals.

"The United States Senate has been my life — and that is not hyperbole," Biden said in his farewell address, summing up a career of melodramatic confirmation hearings, personal tragedy, health scares and failed presidential campaigns. "It literally has been my life."

Given his affinity for the Senate, it must gall Biden that he is among only 12 of 47 vice presidents not to have cast one of the 244 tie breaking votes, according to Senate historians. Still, as vice president, he has played a crucial role in getting the administration and Senate Republicans out of jams, orchestrating agreements to raise the debt ceiling and avert the fiscal cliff.

An expanded role in the Senate could also come in handy for Biden if he decides to launch a long-shot bid for the White House in 2016.

Of course, there are potential downsides.

Biden slip-ups

If he decides to run for president, he could be forced to take uncomfortable votes that wouldn't play well on the campaign trail. And a larger gig in the Senate could only provide another venue for his legendary slip-ups, which provide endless fodder for the media and plenty of headaches for the White House.

He has been on a roll lately — recently apologizing to key Middle Eastern allies for blaming them for the rise of ISIS.

READ: Biden apologizes to Turkey, UAE

In October, Biden quipped that the vice presidency was a "b—ch of a job, weeks after angering Jewish groups by using the term "Shylocks" and calling Asia the "Orient." Once, in Delaware, he joked you couldn't go to a 7-Eleven unless you had a "slight Indian accent."

In a private meeting with black clergy in South Carolina, Biden referred to himself as "the only white boy on the east side of Wilmington" as he recalled his days as a Delaware public defender.

Touring global hot spots on Air Force Two, Biden sometimes baffles foreign leaders with his break-the-ice line : "if I had hair like yours I'd be president by now."

He chatted up grandmas at a Senate swearing in ceremony and told Heidi Heitkamp's family to "spread your legs, you're gonna be frisked."

And in his most famous faux pas, Biden was caught at the White House on a hot mic telling Obama that passing health care reform was a "big f——g deal.

Biden's tongue has sometimes irked the West Wing. In 2012, for instance, he trashed Obama's plans to roll out his backing for gay marriage by committing the cardinal vice presidential sin on "Meet the Press" of getting ahead of the boss.

Obama's confidence

But White House insiders say Obama values Biden's loyalty and owes him one for steadying the re-election campaign after his own first disastrous debate with Mitt Romney.

Vice presidential scholar Joel Goldstein said Biden's influence can be measured in how often Obama reaches into his inner circle for staffers, notably Tom Donilon, Jay Carney and new Ebola czar Ron Klain.

"On the one hand, people have this perception of him as an undisciplined guy because he says things that are viewed as gaffes. But on the other hand to have functioned in the way that he has shows a tremendous amount of discipline."

Biden has been in on every big national security decision, masterminded the withdrawal from Iraq, been a skeptic on military force, managed stimulus spending and gets hours of face time with the president. He has grabbed important national security portfolios including China and mentoring Ukraine's new government.

But former secretary of defense Robert Gates wrote that though it was impossible not to like Biden, he had been "wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades."

Despite his outsized persona, Biden would likely be welcomed back to the Senate warmly even with his eccentricities, according to veteran journalist Jules Witcover, who wrote the vice president's biography.

Some members "thought he talked too much and put his foot in his mouth" and some Republicans view him as "a bit of a loose cannon."

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