Womack acts at temporary Speaker


Yes, that was Rep. Steve Womack, Republican of Arkansas’s Third Congressional District. Yes, Womack, who claimed a small piece of contemporary history on the first day of the New Year, though without the stewardship of C-Span it might have gone undocumented.

The Speaker, regardless of party, rarely presides. The chair rotates according to whatever formula he chooses, and often is assigned to newer members (Womack was elected to a third term in November). Apparently at the designation of Speaker John Boehner, Womack, formerly mayor of Rogers, was acting Speaker immediately before and after the historic “fiscal cliff” compromise vote — and thus it fell to the gentleman from Arkansas to announce “This will be a 15-minute vote” and then start the clock with the gavel. And to preside in the minutes that followed that vote as one after another of his House colleagues lamented, at a minimum, or lambasted Boehner for declining to bring to a vote an emergency disaster relief bill that would benefit Hurricane Sandy’s victims in the northeast. And to declare the “ayes” had it on a motion to adjourn — a ruling that did not sit well with many members.

The fiscal cliff vote had, for Womack, another distinction — it was a rare break with his two fellow Republican delegates from Arkansas. Reps. Rick Crawford of the First District and Tim Griffin of the Second voted against the budget deal. (Rep. Mike Ross of the Fourth District, retired as of Thursday after a decade in the House, voted for the compromise, his final vote as a member of Congress).

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If there was an indispensable man in avoiding the (most recent) fiscal cliff it was — Vice President Joe Biden.

Over the years he often has been a source of amusement to his fellow Democrats and a target of ridicule by Republicans. His verbal gaffes — quips that quickly backfire — are legend; and he has proved capable of spinning his own legend in directions not fully supported by the facts. Such deficits are hardly unheard of among the political class but they helped doom Biden’s two presidential campaigns, the first in 1988 and the second a decade later, in the year of Obama. In their quieter moments, however, political veterans of both parties, in and out of Congress, have long admired Biden as a workhorse who knows his stuff, whose word is good, whose personal values are unquestioned. The consensus view has been that Biden ought not be your first choice for Number One but you definitely want him in your tent, watching your back. The ideal point man on legislation. A devil’s advocate in the Cabinet Room and the Oval Office.

When Biden and his primary rival were sworn in four years ago the former had 36 years in the Senate and the latter four — two, actually, since Mr. Obama had barely reached the Capitol before he began running from it and toward the White House. Biden’s natural bonhomie and his lifetime of close personal and political relationships with senators and representatives of both parties were, and remain, two attributes conspicuously absent in Mr. Obama — and his staff.

Who better to send in when the House’s Tea Party contingent rebelled yet again and shot down not only a tentative deal with Mr. Obama but Speaker Boehner’s “Plan B” substitute, pushing the crisis onto the Senate to resolve? There, Democratic leader Harry Reid and Republican commander Mitch McConnell could barely tolerate one another after months of bitter budget conflict. Biden (aided by public opinion polls) was able to persuade McConnell that his party, not the Democrats, were on the firing line. There soon followed a lopsided bipartisan Senate vote for a compromise the House had little choice but to accept.

It was hardly Biden’s first ride to the rescue as vice president. The debt ceiling deal of 2011 (another down-to-the-wire sprint) and a compromise tax package the year previous, both Biden-McConnell collaborations, were signal accomplishments. So was Biden’s navigation of the START treaty. He is without question Mr. Obama’s key connection to the Congress, and a man without whom the President and the nation would need to invent did he not exist.

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.