More back-slapping than back-stabbing at start of new US Congress

Biden takes selfies with teens while Boehner forces smiles with Republican rebels

Affable US vice-president Joe Biden sweet-talked wives, cooed at children and kissed daughters. “I like kids better than people,” he was heard to say. Photograph: Reuters

Affable US vice-president Joe Biden sweet-talked wives, cooed at children and kissed daughters. “I like kids better than people,” he was heard to say. Photograph: Reuters


Joe Biden has a mouth that can sometimes land him in hot water, but the jocular US vice-president came into his own at the Senate ceremonial swearing-in on Tuesday, when he joked with senators and their families at the start of the 114th Congress.

Biden was charming and it was all great banter, if a little creepy at times. After breaking the ice with some small talk, he read text from a card to swear the senators in before the customary photo opportunity.

Biden took selfies with teenagers, sweet- talked wives, cooed at children and kissed daughters, which was awkward for some of the younger parties to the encounter. The one-time Democratic senator from Delaware with the gift of the gab from his Irish roots (from Louth and Mayo, don’t you know) couldn’t help but poke fun at Republicans.

“Thaddeus!” he proclaimed, greeting seven-term Republican Thad Cochran from Mississippi who survived a challenge from a hard-right Tea Party candidate in a primary election. “Best guy in the United States Senate here. I can say that now because it won’t hurt him.”

“I am not doing the next one,” Biden said as Lindsey Graham, the outspoken Republican from South Carolina, approached. Graham reminded the VP that it was his “constitutional duty” to swear him in.

When the Veep choreographed a group photo to be next to an attractive member of Graham’s campaign team, the senator replied: “I knew this would happen.” The Biden quickly replied: “I may be Irish but I’m not stupid.”

“Dick!” he proclaimed to Democratic senator Dick Durbin. “How are you pal? I tell you what – easy to swear atchya.” To Durbin’s relative, who was introduced as a mother of 10, Biden said: “Mother of 10 – my mother would say, ‘No purgatory for you. Straight to heaven’.”

Biden even spoke on a mobile phone to the grandmother of Republican senator Cory Gardner, who told the vice-president she couldn’t speak to him because she was watching her grandson get sworn in on television.

To the daughter of Republican senator Pat Roberts, Biden said: “Thank God you look like your mother,” and during another family portrait said: “I like kids better than people.”

Naturally, the ceremony wasn’t without a Biden gaffe. The VP called new Republican senator Joni Ernst from Iowa by her husband’s name, “Gail.” It was all good-natured fun and a rare moment of joy in a sharply divided Congress, where the tribal fervour can make life nasty.

The political elbowing began in earnest with bills tabled early in the new Republican-controlled Congress taking aim at Obamacare, the president’s healthcare legislation, and attempting to push through the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline running from Canada to Texas, which Obama wants to put on hold pending a review.

The White House has vowed that Obama will veto any legislation if either issue is pushed through Congress. The House of Representatives voted through changes to Obamacare, ignoring the veto threat and foreshadowing what life will most probably be like in Congress for the next two years. Obama has used his veto twice in just six years. He could very easily double that figure in the coming weeks.

The tension isn’t just between Democrats and Republicans – there is plenty of intra-party strife. Among Republicans, 24 conservatives – a fifth of the party’s caucus in the House of Representatives – voted against John Boehner’s re-election as speaker of the House, making it the biggest revolt against a speaker in more than 150 years. A 25th Republican voted “present” in another snub for the Republican leader.

The insurrection was led by hard-right conservatives and libertarians, including representatives from Texas, Iowa and Kentucky. The number of dissenters was near the 29 required to bring Boehner’s election as speaker to what would have been a damaging second vote.

Despite the number of rebels in his ranks, Boehner’s position will be helped by holding the biggest Republican majority since 1930. (The party controls both houses of Congress for the first time since 2006.)

Dana Milbank, a Washington Post columnist, noted that Boehner had the late Mario Cuomo, former Democratic governor of New York, to thank.

Most of the absentee members of the House on Tuesday were attending Cuomo’s funeral. Given that the election of the speaker is based on a majority of those voting, this reduced the number of votes that Boehner needed to be re-elected.

Remarkably, 12 of the Republican rebels who cast votes for a candidate other than Boehner lined up to have their photographs taken with the speaker soon afterwards at the ceremonial swearing-in on the House side of Congress – and still managed to find smiles. In Washington, nothing gets in the way of a good photo op.