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Senate Celebrates 'Friend' Joe Biden, Paying Tribute to 44-Year Career

While his colleagues noted his achievements, they called him 'friend' and spoke of his character: passionate, full of integrity and trustworthy.
Image: Joe Biden
In this image from Senate Television, Vice President Joe Biden presides over the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.AP

True to form, Vice President Joe Biden was late to the party and the last one to leave.

An emotional Biden presided over the Senate Thursday for the next-to-last time as more than a dozen senators of both political parties spent more than two hours paying tribute to the man who has spent 36 years as the senator from Delaware and eight years as president of the Senate in his role as vice president of the United States.

While his colleagues noted his achievements, they spoke mostly of his character. They described him as someone who is passionate, down-to-earth, full of integrity, trustworthy and a true friend. Sitting atop the dais, in what must have been a deeply difficult but reflective moment, Biden often looked down as senators recounted his political and personal life.

Majority leader Mitch McConnell teased Biden about his lengthy speeches, recalling that he had overcome childhood stuttering and "classic Joe Biden, he's never stopped talking since."

But McConnell also movingly referred to Biden as unbowed and unbroken after tragedies in his life, starting with the death of his first wife and infant daughter in a fatal car crash before the newly elected young senator had even been sworn into office. During his intervening 36 years in the Senate, Biden racked up two million commuter miles on Amtrak. His devotion to commuting originated when he cared for his two surviving sons after his first wife was killed. Decades later, Biden was an enduring symbol of pain and stoicism after his son Beau's death from brain cancer.

"From the grip of unknowable despair came a new man, a better man, stronger and more compassionate," McConnell said.

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McConnell also joked about Biden's good humor after satirical news site The Onion Photoshopped a picture of the supposedly bare-chested vice president washing his Trans-Am on the White House driveway. Biden's response at the time was that everyone knew he drove a Corvette, not a Trans-Am.

Said McConnell: "This son of a used-car salesman will always be a muscle car guy at heart."

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, became so emotional that he had to stop speaking while telling a story about how Biden met with a first-time voter who was so sick with sickle cell anemia that it was difficult for him to vote.

He added that that story epitomizes Biden — someone who "offers joy" to people who are struggling.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, talked about their 40 year friendship that began when McCain was a Navy Senate liaison who used to carry Biden's bags on overseas trips. He recalled a lighter moment from Biden's early senate days when McCain and Biden's wife, Jill, once danced on a table at a bar.

Related: Biden Emotional at Vote on Cancer Funding Bill Partly Named for Son Beau

Dr. Jill Biden and much of their family sat in the Senate gallery watching the tribute, eyes filled with tears the celebration of his life and relationships stretched on.

Biden told reporters off the Senate floor that he had no intention of running for president again in 2020, despite teasing references over the last few days. During appearances on Capitol Hill each day this week, Biden had stoked speculation by not ruling it out, but not taking questions about it seriously. Biden further dismissed speculation Tuesday night on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" but added an important caveat. “I don’t plan on running again, but to say you know what’s going to happen in four years I just think is not rational.” He added that he’s learned over his 74 years that he should “never say never.”

Both Republican and Democratic Senators acknowledged the speculation and joked about him being president.

“Thank you, Mr. President, and it does bring me some joy to call you Mr. President,” said Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware. The senator presiding over the senate is referred to as president.

Biden decided against running in 2016 because of the pain he suffered from the death of his son. He has said many times that his heart would not have been in it, and he told Colbert that he doesn’t regret not running because it was the right decision for his family.

It’s clear, however, that even though his time in elected politics might be coming to an end, Democrats want him to continue to play a key role in Democratic politics over the next four years. During a closed door meeting with House Democrats, Rep. Jackie Speier of California asked him to run the Democratic National Committee, something other Democrats had hoped for, as well. But Biden's spokeswoman said in November that the vice president was not interested in being DNC chair.

Biden has not announced precisely what he will do next, but something to help fight cancer is all but certain.

His tribute Wednesday came moments after the Senate passed the Cures bill, a piece of legislation that is aimed at advancing medial research. The senate voted unanimously to name a portion of the bill that deals with cancer research after Biden’s son, Beau.

Biden is seen as a partisan who is able to cross party lines. As vice president, he was praised for partnering with Sen. Republican Leader Mitch McConnell after budget negotiations between President Barack Obama and then-Speaker John Boehner broke down.

During his time in the Senate, he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee where he oversaw the passage of the Violence Against Women Act. He also oversaw a crime bill in the 1990s that put thousands more police on the streets but also instituted tough mandatory minimum sentences that have been fiercely criticized in recent years. He also served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Tomorrow, Biden will be joined in the Senate by Hillary Clinton, his sometime ally and political rival, to pay tribute to retiring Democratic leader Harry Reid.