Biden, Dodd Now Getting Limelight

Posted April 7, 2008 at 6:38pm

After spending the last year on unsuccessful quests for the White House, Democratic Sens. Joseph Biden (Del.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.) now are locked in a race of another kind — to re-engage in the Senate duties they largely ignored in 2007.

And ironically, both men appear to be gaining far greater traction in Congress than they ever did on the presidential campaign trail. As chairmen of two Senate committees overseeing the Iraq War and the housing crisis, Biden and Dodd are at the heart of two of the most pressing issues facing the nation.

This week the duo will be front and center as the Senate looks to simultaneously approve legislation to relieve the subprime mortgage meltdown and play host to hearings on the state of the Iraqi conflict with Gen. David Petraeus. Dodd, as chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, helped craft the Senate’s bipartisan plan to address the housing problem, while Biden, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, gets to hold the gavel this afternoon during critical questioning with the war’s top U.S. military officer.

“It’s been a race to relevance for both of them,” noted one senior Senate Democratic aide.

“Now that they are back and in their usual roles and the issues are so hot, they have a higher profile now than they ever did as presidential candidates,” observed another Senate Democratic aide. “After they gave up their campaigns, it turns out that being chairmen in Washington was their biggest stage all along.”

Certainly, the current political circumstances have provided Biden and Dodd considerable platforms. But neither Senator seems to be shying away from the attention their committee perches naturally provide, either.

Biden scheduled a series of Iraq-related hearings last week heading into Petraeus’ visit, delivered the Democratic radio address over the weekend on the issue and has been at the forefront of nearly all of the Democrats’ foreign policy efforts. Dodd, for his part, has jumped squarely into the center of the Senate’s debate on the economy and housing squeeze, having crafted legislation and held numerous hearings — including one Monday in the hot Democratic presidential primary state of Pennsylvania.

The Senators’ current posture is a break from a year ago, when neither seemed to put much of a premium on their committee duties. Dodd, in particular, came under fire for passing off his Banking panel responsibilities to other Senate Democrats as the nation’s mortgage crisis began to take hold.

These days, however, Democratic Senators largely are downplaying Biden’s and Dodd’s 2007 attendance records, preferring to look ahead at what the two men are doing to help lead the Conference now, when they argue it matters most.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Biden and Dodd “are two of the very best” Senators in his Conference. “I missed them a lot,” Reid said, adding that having them back has “been a big help to me.”

Even Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who had to forsake a key bankruptcy provision in the current Senate housing package that Dodd brokered, said both chairmen are bringing “the skills from the trail to those issues” they oversee. Durbin praised Biden for having “never lost focus on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” and he brushed aside concerns that Dodd’s absence last year at the beginning of the subprime crisis was problematic.

“As a Caucus, we were moving on proposals, but we weren’t getting far with our Republican colleagues,” Durbin said, adding that Dodd “is here at the right moment” to solve the problem.

Dodd has defended his handling of the Banking Committee last year, and he reiterated last week that he did his best to balance running for president with his chairmanship. Dodd acknowledged, however, that he and Biden both have returned to packed Senate schedules, particularly since both the Iraq War and the downturn in the housing market are atop the chamber’s priority lists.

“Obviously, these issues have become paramount, so there’s a requirement to spend a lot of time on them,” Dodd said. “But it’s coincidental more than anything else.”

Biden said it was easy to refocus on his Senate duties after abandoning the White House run, since his platform for the presidency centered on the issues before the Foreign Relations Committee. Biden joked that it’s easy to be part of the action “when you are a chairman,” adding that, “You’ve got to be engaged.”

“For me, a large reason why I ran was because of how badly I thought our foreign policy was being managed,” he said. “That’s why I ran in the first place.”

Many Democratic Senators privately said they felt Biden did a better job minding his Senate duties along with his presidential aspirations. In addition to concerns that Dodd left his banking panel unattended last year, some Democrats felt Dodd sometimes used his presidential bid to disrupt Senate legislation, such as when he sought to filibuster the reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act from the campaign trail.

Yet these days, Democratic Senators say they are largely pleased with the newly focused and involved Biden and Dodd, both of whom Democrats argued are critical players in the Conference.

“Both Chris Dodd and Joe Biden are respected on both sides of the aisle — everyone is glad to have them back,” Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said. “They are completely re- engaged, and they are chairmen of two very powerful committees in the Senate. With Iraq and the financial crisis, at this moment in time, they are two of the most important Members of the United States Senate.”

A knowledgeable Senate Democratic aide said “there’s a legitimate story to be written” about the pair’s newfound interest in being Senators, saying: “Sen. Dodd, after being MIA from the Senate for months, if not a year, is finally getting re-engaged, and Sen. Biden is prepared to get back into the spotlight, and will be front and center starting with the [Iraq] hearings this week. They are taking advantage of the situation given to them.”

Biden and Dodd are two of the Senate Democrats’ longest serving, and among the most ambitious. Despite the odds they faced against the powerhouse candidacies of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), both Senators entered into bids for the 2008 presidential nomination. They each dropped out in early January after failing to make even the smallest of inroads in the contest.

Many Democrats believe Biden and Dodd continue to have their sights set on higher offices. Dodd has been rumored as a future candidate for Senate Majority Leader, while both have been mentioned as possible Cabinet secretaries under a Democratic president. That prospect, however, is far more likely for Biden since Delaware’s governor is a Democrat who would keep his seat in that party’s hands, while Connecticut has a Republican chief executive who likely would replace Dodd with a member of the GOP.

Those possibilities aside, Sen. Tom Carper (D), Biden’s home-state ally, said his Delaware colleague “is fully back in the fray. He never lost his step.” Of Dodd, Carper said, he waded back in “a bit more slowly, but is up to top speed now — and we need him to be.”

“It’s got to be a tough transition,” Carper said of shelving White House hopes to return to the Senate. “One day you are running for president, and the next day, you didn’t do well, you are facing significant debt and have to come back and be part of the caucus.”

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.