Joe Biden again steals the show on Senate's opening day

Joe Biden again steals the show on Senate's opening day
Vice President Joe Biden takes a "selfie" with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's grandson A.J. Bellabona in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

In 1856, amid fierce debates over slavery that would lead to civil war, a senator was beaten unconscious with a cane by a political rival. On Tuesday, 159 years later, Joe Biden appeared in the same historic chamber taking selfies with senators' grandkids.

Since 2011 the vice president's chummy encounters with senators and their families have become an unlikely highlight of the start of each new Congress, days otherwise defined by the tradition of its ceremonial proceedings and the tension of leadership elections.

Tuesday was no exception. Biden gushed over senators' young children and grandchildren, fawned over their mothers and dispensed dating advice to their teenage daughters.

The spectacle has become C-SPAN's must-see TV, and kept a handful of reporters in the historic Old Senate Chamber for hours documenting every fresh Biden moment.

To the daughter of Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, he said thank God she had her mother's looks.

"It's easy to swear at you," Biden teased the assistant Democratic leader, Richard Durbin of Illinois.

As Biden welcomed Colorado's Cory Gardner to the Senate, the Republican put him on the phone with his grandmother, who couldn't be in Washington for the occasion. She told Biden she didn't have time to talk  -- she was watching the oath on television.

"I know! I just swore in your grandson," Biden said.


Gardner took back the phone and told her, "Grandma, that just happened."

Amid a major power shift in the Senate, which is now controlled by Republicans, the light moments overshadowed more than a few serious ones.

In his role as president of the Senate, Biden swears in every newly elected and reelected senator four at a time in the modern chamber. Later, those senators have the option of coming one by one to the historic chamber, in use from 1819 to 1859, for a ceremonial re-swearing-in photo op.

First in line was the new majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who also began his sixth Senate term. The two frequent negotiating partners shared a warm greeting. But the vice president also made a point of reveling in a bit of history with McConnell's wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

"I got to be the first one to call him the majority leader," Biden said with equal parts joy and reverence.

Next in line was Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the new majority whip. After a few photos, Biden leaned in close for a little business. "We ought to be able to get some things done," he told the GOP's No. 2 leader.

As Biden welcomed family after family, the former Delaware senator of 36 years often placed himself back in their shoes. He noted that he remembered his parents sharing similar moments with him, and that his daughter was the same age for one of his past swearings-in.

"I hope you love the Senate as much as I did," Biden said somewhat wistfully at the end of more than two hours of grip-and-grin. "It's the greatest institution in the world."

Biden's office released a video of him talking about the responsibility on the ride up to the Capitol.

"I can't think of a greater honor than being sworn in as a United States senator," said the man twice sworn in as vice president of the United States. "I hope they understand what an incredible opportunity they have."

Follow @mikememoli for more news out of Washington.