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Biden’s committee days bode well for how he would govern

On Senate Foreign Relations, he and Richard Lugar put bipartisanship at the forefront

Joe Biden and Richard Lugar, here in 2003, had a strong partnership on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee because both shared a common vision of how both parties should overcome their differences, Diller, Bressler, Locke and Meacham write.
Joe Biden and Richard Lugar, here in 2003, had a strong partnership on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee because both shared a common vision of how both parties should overcome their differences, Diller, Bressler, Locke and Meacham write. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As Republican senior professional staff on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under the late Sen. Richard Lugar, we lived through six years of near daily interaction with Sen. Joe Biden and his staff. From 2003 through 2006, Lugar was chairman, while Biden was ranking member. They flipped roles in 2007 when Democrats won control of the Senate. Despite major policy differences between Lugar and Biden and the typical rivalry between their staffs, there never was a moment when we doubted that Biden’s main objective as an elected official was the well-being of the United States. 

As any committee staffer can attest, the relationship between a chair and ranking member of a committee is like an arranged marriage. You don’t choose your partner, but you are attached at the elbow through hundreds of hours of hearings and meetings. If your partner is unrelentingly partisan, day-to-day operations of the committee can become a grind with almost every decision, from hearing topics to the division of office space, subject to contention and resentment.

The two senators worked closely together, but this comity was not based on a chummy friendship. While they respected each other,  they had very different personalities and traveled in different Senate circles. Lugar was closer to other Democratic partners philosophically (Sam Nunn) and temperamentally (Pat Leahy). Lugar and Biden also had different priorities. Biden usually was more interested in regional geopolitics, diplomatic negotiations and conflict resolution than Lugar was. Lugar was more focused on the building blocks of American economic and political power — alliances, trade agreements, arms treaties and diplomatic capacity. 

But the partnership flourished because Biden and Lugar had a common vision of how the two parties should overcome their differences. This came down to triaging decisions into those that could be made jointly, those that required a negotiated compromise and those where disagreements were too sharp to do anything but go to our corners and come out fighting under the committee rules. Neither side gave away prerogatives. But both were under orders from the top to find compromise wherever possible. 

We did have fights. The most notable was over the 2005 nomination of John Bolton to be U.N. ambassador. But even in this case, in which the two sides resembled rival litigants in a court battle, nobody lied to one another or violated committee rules. The Biden and Lugar counsels were scrupulous in jointly presenting witness interviews and other evidence to the committee. This allowed the committee to operate from a common set of facts, even if the interpretation of those facts was sharply in dispute. 

Like all politicians, Biden had his foibles. His practice of taking Amtrak to and from Delaware daily often created frustrations in committee scheduling. And his reputation for loquacity was well deserved. The irony was that for Biden, this wasn’t a function of being in front of a camera. His tendency to run on with stories and observations was no different in the Cloakroom than it was in the hearing room. One bemused high-ranking Biden staffer recalled that the first time he went into Biden’s office it was daylight, and he didn’t emerge until three hours later in complete darkness, having experienced the Biden version of the dialectical method. But despite his capacity to talk a subject to death, Biden also listened. Public discourse was how he came to conclusions. 

As leaders, Lugar and Biden were especially alike in two ways. First, they were both devoted to evidence. For dozens of hearings — even those on the politically sensitive topic of Iraq — Lugar and Biden jettisoned the “two for the majority, one for the minority” partisan system of witness selection prevalent on many committees. Instead they assembled joint witness lists of top experts based on their accomplishments and originality rather than their willingness to represent a partisan view.  

Second, Lugar and Biden believed that fights over policy in committee should not translate into division in front of foreign leaders. The two senators hosted hundreds of foreign officials at the Capitol, sanctioned dozens of staff missions to foreign countries and traveled together themselves to Iraq in 2003. Their standing order was to present the most united front possible. They wanted foreign governments to understand that the U.S. could achieve unity of purpose despite its vigorous open debate.

Our six years working closely with Biden and his team underscored his natural inclinations toward bipartisan principles. These include an embrace of evidence-based policymaking, a recognition that unity is inherently valuable to American power and a readiness to consult with Republicans on policy — all attributes that would serve him well as president.

Dan Diller previously served as Republican deputy staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Shellie Bressler previously served as Republican senior professional staff member for global health on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mary Locke previously served as Republican senior professional staff member for State Department and foreign assistance affairs on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Carl Meacham previously served as Republican senior professional staff member for Western Hemisphere affairs on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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