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Last updated: January 4, 2013 7:07 pm
When Joseph Biden was taking new senators through a practice run of their swearing-in ceremony this week, doubtless one of the most adrenalin-inducing experiences of their lives, the vice-president could not help but crack a string of jokes.
“This guy looks like he still plays for South Carolina,” Mr Biden, who served 36 years in the Senate, said of Tim Scott, the newly appointed Republican senator for South Carolina, as he met the former football player and his family in the hallowed chamber this week. “Need any help on your pecs, man, give me a call,” said the 70-year-old Mr Biden.
Upon being shown video of his father uttering some earthier phrases to the husband of incoming Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, Beau Biden said: “He’s the same person at home, at Home Depot and in Congress.”
Indeed, this is vintage Biden – the down-to-earth blue-collar Joe who puts people at ease in even the most formal of settings, but who can never be relied upon to keep his foot out of his mouth.
After four years as President Barack Obama’s deputy, a revitalised Mr Biden is set to play an increasingly prominent role in the administration’s second term.
“Biden is becoming a very important player not just because he knows the Senate and senators trust him, but because Obama has a very strong relationship with him,” said Norman Ornstein, a veteran political analyst who has known the vice-president for decades.
Mr Biden’s long experience in the Senate – stretching back to the time when “bipartisan” was not a slanderous term – has made him Mr Obama’s go-to guy when he needs someone to bang heads together on Capitol Hill.
During their first term, Mr Biden was called in to help broker deals on the contentious healthcare reforms – which he had initially advised Mr Obama against pushing – and extending the Bush-era tax cuts in 2010.
During a presidential debate in 2007, Joseph Biden was asked to respond to a member of the public who posed a question on gun control while brandishing a semi-automatic gun. “This is my baby,” the questioner said of his rifle. “I tell you what, if that’s his baby, he needs help,” the Democratic candidate replied.
Mr Biden, a six-time Delaware senator, has been an advocate of greater gun controls for more than 30 years.
In 1984, he helped pass the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which included provisions for longer prison sentences for repeat offenders who used firearms in their crimes – although a ban on assault weapons he wrote around the same time failed in Congress.
In 1994, Mr Biden helped push through the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which became known as the Biden Crime Law and included a ban on assault weapons written by Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California.
Mr Biden was reportedly worried the inclusion of the ban would scupper the crime bill but fought for its inclusion, and won. But that demanded compromise. By the time it was enacted by President Bill Clinton after six years of wrangling, the law defined an assault weapon as a rifle that could take a magazine and two add-ons such as a bayonet lug or grenade launcher – guns with none or one of these remained legal.
The law also banned magazines of more than 10 rounds and manufacture of 19 types of semi-automatic firearms, but any made before 1994 were exempt.
The bill, which had a “sunset clause” of 10 years, was allowed to elapse in 2004 by the then Republican-led Congress.
Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat, and Mark Kirk, a Republican of Illinois, tried to reinstate the ban, to no avail.
As the US teetered on the edge of the fiscal precipice last week, it was Mr Biden who was dispatched to the Hill to work out a deal with Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, after majority leader Harry Reid’s efforts came to nothing.
“The vice-president and I have worked together on solutions before, and I believe we can again,” Mr McConnell said.
Analysts say that this McConnell-Biden arrangement is likely to become the cornerstone of dealmaking over the net few years.
After the deal was passed by the House, Mr Biden stood at Mr Obama’s side in the White House close to midnight as the president said: “I want to thank the work that was done by my extraordinary vice-president Joe Biden.”
During their first term, Mr Biden’s main areas of responsibility in the White House were Iraq and the Recovery Act, both of which have now come to an end.
In their second term, Mr Biden can be expected to take on a leading – if somewhat behind the scenes – role pushing the president’s ambitious legislative agenda.
First up is gun control, one of the most politically sensitive issues around. Mr Obama has appointed his vice-president head of a task force to look for ways to avoid recurrences of last month’s Sandy Hook school killings.
Mr Biden, after six years of work, shepherded a gun control bill through the Senate in 1994, and refused to yield to Republican pressure when an assault weapon ban was tacked on to it.
He has already started pushing for the president’s other top legislative priority – comprehensive immigration reform.
“In one sense, we have a long way to go, bringing 11 million Hispanics out of the shadows and into the light of day,” Mr Biden told Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute this week. “What’s different today is that the rest of the nation, the rest of America, recognises it’s time. It’s your time.”
The role that Mr Biden will play over the next year will be a chance for him to overcome perceptions that he is not just easy-going, but is an “amiable buffoon”.
Countering such perceptions will be important because Mr Biden has not ruled out making another run for the presidency in 2016.
Although he will be 74 by then, he is in good shape and works out in the House gym regularly.
His performances of the last week stand in stark contrast to photos of the other top candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2016 – Hillary Clinton.
A tired looking Mrs Clinton left a New York hospital this week after undergoing treatment for a blood clot in her head. (Mr Biden suffered two brain aneurysms in the late 1980s.)
But Mrs Clinton still has plenty of time to rebound.
“If Hillary recharges her batteries and does some remarkable things around the world for women, as expected,” said Mr Ornstein, “she will be very hard to take on, let alone beat.”
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