For one afternoon, Senate Republicans and Democrats gleefully referred to Joe Biden as “Mr. President.”
As the nation’s 47th vice president, Biden is the president of the Senate though his two White House bids went unrealised. On Wednesday, he presided over the chamber as lawmakers took turns paying tribute to the Amtrak-riding, aviator sunglass-wearing former senator in speeches marked by humor, wistfulness and remembrances.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., described Biden’s fight to overcome a stutter as a child, the trajectory of his political career and the unusual friendships the Delaware senator forged with Republicans. Biden served in the Senate for 36 years before being tapped by Barack Obama to be his running mate in 2008.
McConnell said he trusted Biden implicitly during negotiations that staff in his office knew were serious because the vice president was involved. He marveled at the vice president’s resilience in the face of personal tragedy and political setbacks.
“Unbowed, unbroken, unable to stop talking,” McConnell said.
Shortly after Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1972, his first wife and year-old daughter died in a car crash. His son, Beau, died of cancer last year.
While an emotional Biden listened, McConnell told him, “You’ve been a real friend, you’ve been a trusted partner, and it’s been an honor to serve with you. We’re all going to miss you. Godspeed.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who served with Biden on the Judiciary Committee, said, “We all respect him and most of us love him.” `’My friend Joe,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., told Biden.
Biden’s family, including his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, watched from the visitors’ gallery during 2 hours of speeches.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who won Biden’s Senate seat, said “the greatest honor of my life is to serve in the seat that you held for 36 years – and not just literally this seat in the Senate, but also a seat on the 7:15 Amtrak train down from Wilmington every morning.”
Drawing the most laughs was Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who recalled carrying Biden’s bags when the senator was on the Foreign Relations Committee and McCain was the Navy’s Senate liaison.
“I joked recently that I’ve resented it ever since,” McCain said. He later added: “Neither of us is the shy and retiring type. We’ve both been known to hold a strong opinion or two, and, when circumstances warrant, we would rather make our points emphatically than elliptically.”
The vice president decided not to seek the White House in 2015 and instead backed this year’s eventual Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.
Biden’s next chapter is a bit uncertain. He turned 74 last month and suggested earlier this week that he might run for president in 2020 when he will turn 78 after the election. On Wednesday, though, he said: “I have no intention of running.”