Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House John Boehner, from left, look on as Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, lies in state on the floor of the Capitol Rotunda, Dec. 20, 2012, in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO/Paul J. Richards
As the hours wind down before the so-called "fiscal cliff" deadline, it appears that the fate of the nation's economy is in the hands of two players who have been left out of negotiations until the 11th hour: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Vice President Joe Biden.
After Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., delayed a promised counter-proposal Sunday, McConnell aired his frustrations publicly saying that he is willing to negotiate but needed a "dance partner." He reached out to Biden Sunday afternoon to fill out his dance card.
President Obama left the task to working out a deal to Reid and McConnell after a Friday afternoon meeting at the White House and both sounded optimistic that they could reach a deal. They have worked together in leadership for more than a decade and they both understand the difficulties of maintaining good faith while respecting the wishes of their divergent caucuses.
"I think they both recognize and respect these skills in each other. They keep their word to each other," a former top aide to Reid told CBSNews.com. "They're both consummate dealmakers," the aide added. Proof is that in this polarized environment, most items that come to the Senate floor - especially if it passes - requires compromise and agreement between Reid and McConnell.
But the environment is indeed polarized and Reid and McConnell have been sparring over what seems would be the most simple legislation to the most complex. The Senate has been stalemated over judicial nominations to funding bills. Now, the two are at odds over Reid's threat to change the Senate rules to make it more difficult to filibuster - or block legislation.
Thus negotiations over the "fiscal cliff" have proved difficult for the two leaders. That prompted McConnell to reach out to a familiar negotiating partner: Biden.
The Biden-McConnell duo makes a lot of sense but at the same time defies the odds. As minority leader, McConnell has little control of what passes the legislative body. He has much greater ability to block what the majority party is trying to push through. And as vice president, Biden must defer to the president. He is, after all, second in command.
But the two have a long history.
They served in the Senate together for 25 years. McConnell backed one of Biden's biggest accomplishments voting for the 1994 crime bill that included the assault weapons ban (a bill that has been back in the news following the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.)
Their relationship seems to go beyond their ability to negotiate; it is a relationship of mutual respect. McConnell invited Biden to be a featured speaker at the University of Louisville last year and introduced Biden as someone who is "almost impossible not to like."
But more recently, McConnell and Biden's roles have become more prominent, stepping up to finalize what Mr. Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had been unable to accomplish.. When the American economy was on the brink of catastrophe after Congress was unable to come to an agreement on lifting the debt ceiling in August 2011, it was the two longtime legislators who sealed the deal. They finalized the details, ironically, that led to the automatic $1.2 trillion of across-the-board spending cuts to defense and non-defense programs that are set to go into effect Wednesday. Bringing in Biden to talk with McConnell was considered the administration's "last play," according to Politico.
The other time the economy was on the brink, in December 2010, when tax rates for all Americans were set to increase to pre- Bush levels, it was McConnell and Biden who worked together to come up with the two year extension (which expire tonight). "They didn't use [Biden] soon enough," said former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. in 2011. "That was one of their problems."
As Biden and McConnell negotiated an extension of the Bush-era tax rates and attempt to deal with the spending cuts - both of which exist thanks to their previous deals - perhaps they can be blamed for two of the major pillars of the "fiscal cliff" that Congress is working to avert. But if past is prologue, they have also proven that they are capable of coming up a deal to avoid - or at least postpone - the latest crisis.