Posted: Jan. 7, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

In a record-breaking moment for a Delawarean, Joseph R. Biden Jr. walked down the aisle of the U.S. Senate's grandiose chamber on Tuesday to take his oath for the sixth time, but his first with a new escort.

Biden, the state's senior Democratic senator, was accompanied by Thomas R. Carper, his junior Democratic counterpart, in the tradition of asking a fellow member to share in this rite of passage. Always before Biden strode side by side with William V. Roth Jr., the Republican who was two years his senior in the chamber until Carper beat him in 2000.

In taking the history-making oath, Biden outdistanced two of Delaware's political lions who earlier set records in longevity. Roth was elected to five Senate terms of six years and his predecessor, Republican John J. Williams, to four.

Biden, whose Senate tenure began 30 years ago, didn't take his record lightly. "I am incredibly proud to be the only person in the history of the state to be elected to the U.S. Senate six times," he said.

It was a highlight on a day that also saw the rest of Delaware's three-member delegation make a mark on the 108th Congress as it convened for a new two-year session.

Across the Capitol in the House of Representatives, Michael N. Castle also was setting a new standard as the first Delawarean to serve six terms there -- not to be elected to them, but actually to serve the two-year terms.

Castle, a Republican, surpassed Louis McLane, a 19th Century Federalist. McLane won six terms, but in those days when the state legislatures elected senators, he was elevated to the upper chamber before he went back to the House. His time as a representative was halted after five terms.

Castle downplayed his accomplishment, noting it is routine in other states for members to serve for decades. He said he pays much more attention to another number -- namely, what he polls on Election Day. (He led all statewide candidates -- as is typical -- with 72 percent last time.)

"Even in six terms, you still feel like you're on a learning curve," Castle said.

He conceded he had not expected to be in the House this long, figuring instead that Roth would retire and make way for him, if not in 1994 then in 2000, keeping the seat safely Republican. Still, he said he was comfortable where he was.

"Actually, I've become happier as far as my knowledge and experience and knowing the staff and getting a little seniority," Castle said. "I'm not ready to quit. I do it two years at a time."

Also Tuesday, Carper made a move that shows he is working on the inside Senate game. Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, selected Carper to serve on a Democratic leadership advisory committee that also will include Patty Murray of Washington, Bill Nelson of Florida and Charles E. Schumer of New York.

"I thank Sen. Daschle for this opportunity and hope to use this seat at the table to speak for the moderates in our party," Carper said.

Still, the focus of the day from a Delaware perspective clearly was Biden. Several hundred people from home came to Washington to celebrate the occasion marking his rise from the very lowest senatorial rung -- 100th in seniority in 1973 -- to ranking status.

Only five other senators were sent earlier: West Virginia Democrat Robert C. Byrd in 1958, Hawaii Democrat Daniel K. Inouye in 1962, Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy in 1962, South Carolina Democrat Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings in 1966 and Alaska Republican Ted Stevens in 1968.

Biden's oath was administered by Vice President Richard Cheney, who swore in the new and returning senators in groups of four by alphabetical order. Biden, who was in the first foursome, carried with him a 19th-Century Bible handed down through the Robinettes, his paternal grandmother's family.

Afterwards he hosted a reception in the Russell Office Building in the Senate Caucus Room, one of the most famous chambers on Capitol Hill. Under its soaring ceiling, with its imposing marble columns, elaborate chandeliers and a cascade of red draperies with gold fringe, John F. Kennedy announced for president and Biden presided at the doomed confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Robert J. Bork.

Other senators dropped by -- Hollings, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut. There also was a typical Delaware showing of some Republicans, including: former Secretary of State Michael Ratchford; John M. Burris, who was Biden's 1984 opponent and the 2000 gubernatorial candidate; and Michael E. Harkins, the imperiled former executive director of the Delaware River & Bay Authority.

When Biden spoke, he looked back. He recalled another history-making day, the first time he took the Senate oath, when he was barely the minimum age of 30, one of the youngest senators ever. It was administered not in Washington but in a hospital in Wilmington, the aftermath of a car crash that claimed his wife and daughter and injured his two sons.

Next Biden turned to the present. "I'm a different man. Hopefully I've grown," he said. "Hopefully I've gotten better. Hopefully I'm close to the top of my game."

There also was the obligatory flirt with the future -- the Presidential Tease, the 2004 version. If Biden ran, it would be his second try. His first was for the 1988 nomination, when he was driven prematurely from the race, largely because of questions of plagiarism.

Of all the people in the crowded room, Biden singled out the presence of Lou D'Allesandro, a state senator from New Hampshire, the presidential Promised Land.

"It has no significance other than he's a good friend," Biden insisted. "Don't listen to him if he tells you I should be doing something else."

D'Allesandro wasn't giving anything away. "What I want is for us to recapture the White House in 2004," he said.

Biden's sister Valerie Biden Owens, who runs his campaigns, didn't stoke or dampen the speculation, either. "Honest to God, I don't know," she said.

Still, Biden himself kept dropping in those reminders. He finished his remarks with a favorite quotation from the Irish poet Seamus Heaney:

History says, don't hope

On this side of the grave

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

Then Biden said, "By the way, I quote everything."