Vice President Joe Biden isn't sticking around Washington just to be cut out of any endgame negotiations to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.Biden and his wife, Jill, headed out to Camp David in Maryland's Catoctin mountains for the three-day holiday just when talks between Republicans and Democrats appeared to be nearing a deal on the 12th day of the shutdown and the last weekend before the Oct. 17 debt-ceiling deadline.
While most national parks are closed, Camp David, the 200-acre official presidential retreat, is open, staffed by the Navy and the Marine Corps, which Congress exempted from the shutdown with the rest of the active-duty military.
On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday Biden sat alongside President Obama during a series of meetings with House Democrats, House Republicans, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans. Afterward, lawmakers reported that Biden had a marginalized role and did not speak formally, letting Obama run the show.
The White House was meeting with Senate Democrats Saturday afternoon to plot their next steps – and Biden will be absent during the most critical party strategy meeting of the crisis.
Biden was frozen out of debt-limit negotiations with Republicans months ago when Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told Obama he didn't want Biden conducting any backchannel negotiations with his old colleagues in the Senate that could undermine Reid.
Having spent 36 years in the Senate, Biden is a natural deal-maker. He also has been the White House budget point-man when Republicans last threatened to shut down the government in a fight over the debt ceiling increase in 2011 and again last year during talks on the so-called fiscal cliff.
Biden's deal-making allowed McConnell to permanently freeze tax rates for families earning $450,000 or more a year and delayed for just two months the across-the-board spending cuts imposed by sequestration that McConnell secured in earlier budget negotiations with Biden.
Democrats believe Biden conceded too much to Republicans in those earlier negotiations. Biden's back-channel negotiating also allowed the Senate's top Republican, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to cut Reid out of the talks on a deal. So Reid had Biden sidelined this time around.
Biden joined Obama and other administration officials in a meeting with House Republicans on Thursday, but the vice president didn't leave the White House for hours after the meeting ended, leaving some observers to speculate that Obama was seeking his counsel on next steps.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told the Washington Examiner Friday that Biden was part of the meeting with Senate Republicans earlier that day, talking and kibitzing with many of his former colleagues and friends.
But Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., later said Biden's role was very limited.
“He spoke very little – the president spoke the majority of the time,” he said.
Biden's departure to Camp David comes amid the first signs of progress on a spending and debt deal that began in the Senate, where Biden spend so many years cutting deals and where he would be naturally positioned to broker talks.
(Graham has been playing the role of back-channel conduit to House Republicans and has been quietly keeping Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, a friend and former House colleague, in the loop with Senate Republicans' thinking.)
Earlier Saturday, Reid and McConnell started talking. The two met in the morning, along with Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-NY., and Lamar Alexander, D-Tenn.
Afterward, Reid said he'd like to break the impasse on a spending bill and debt ceiling increase before Wall Street opens for business on Monday. Schumer said the talks create “a little bit of cause for optimism” and that McConnell showed “good will” during the session.