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Joe Biden Plays a Home Game at Firefighters Conference

Biden speaks during the International Association of Fire Fighters Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Biden speaks during the International Association of Fire Fighters Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Decades ago, a young Democrat running for Senate said that in Delaware, there are really three political parties: “Democrats, Republicans and firefighters.”  

And Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been a favorite of career and volunteer firefighters alike ever since, so when he was scheduled to speak Monday to an audience of unionized firefighters from across the nation gathered in Washington, he was playing as close to a home game as he could get outside of Delaware (or Scranton, Pa.). The firefighters in Delaware were among Biden’s earliest and most enthusiastic supporters when he was seeking a seat in the Senate back in 1972, and his speech Monday to the International Association of Fire Fighters at a hotel on Capitol Hill served to set the stage for what the union is billing as a presidential forum where the list of expected speakers includes eight men who have at least been floated as seeking the White House in 2016, including GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida.  

“Labor is the reason there is a middle class. Ask those guys who have a different view than us, when someone is trapped in a second-story burning building, who’s the guy or woman that runs in and saves that neighbor, your neighbor — it’s you,” Biden said to the crowd, also referring to the actions that firefighters take every day responding to car accidents and other emergencies. “Cut through all the malarkey. That’s who you are.”  

And while Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who also addressed the firefighters Monday, both could jump into the 2016 presidential waters, the vice president was clearly trying to get the crowd ready for the Republicans on Tuesday’s schedule, more than liberal independent Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont or former Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.  

“I understand you’re going to hear from a bunch of candidates tomorrow. Well, ask them, ask them whether they think you’re a drag on the community, whether you’re an obstacle to overcome, whether you are the community, and in order to be able to protect the community there are certain basic things you need,” Biden said. “Make a judgement. Do they understand you? Do they get who you are? Do they get what this is about? Ask if they understand your families, the ones who know what can happen every time you pull on those boots and walk out the door, but they still send you on your way.”  

In addition to the trio of GOP senators, New York Rep. Peter T. King and former Gov. George Pataki are scheduled to appear, as is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (albeit via a video message).  

In her own speech, Warren said there’s no way the government should run short of money for funding equipment for firefighters.  

“I can rail on about what’s wrong in Washington. Heck, I will rail on about what’s wrong in Washington, but lobbyists push back hard, and big oil, and race horse owners and big pharmaceuticals, big banks — they’re not going to give up their special perks,” Warren said. “The only thing that will make a real difference is if we work together.”  

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin struck a similar tone, blasting the Republican strategy that involved attempting to tie funding for the Department of Homeland Security to opposition to President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.  

When a cabinet department is funded under a continuing resolution, as the DHS was until just last week, the agency is restricted from allocating new grants.  

“The fact that they would overlook the obvious: that when it comes to first responders, we’re not Democrats, we’re not Republicans, we’re not independents, we are Americans, and we value what you do for a living, and we value when you put your life on the line, and any politician on Capitol Hill stupid enough to cut off the grants for training and equipment and the people you need to do your job effectively, has no business serving in the United States Capitol,” Durbin said.  

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