Presidential Politics in Play During Fiscal Cliff Votes, Negotiations

Aspiring White House contenders are using the fiscal cliff to jockey for political positions.

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Vice President Joe Biden, with Majority Leader Harry Reid, arrives for a Senate Democratic caucus meeting about the fiscal cliff on Capitol Hill.

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Much of the fiscal cliff negotiations reflected the political realities of President Obama's re-election in November. But as the drama played out, it became increasingly obvious that the 2016 White House race was part of the wheeling and dealing as well.

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On the Democratic side, Vice President Joe Biden reportedly swooped in and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. After talks between Senate leadership broke down, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called on Biden to get things back on track. And he did. Among colleagues Biden was always known to be a top negotiator, able to build good will and trust while showing flexibility—though what the public often sees a gaffe-prone pol in the former Delaware senator.

While it's unclear whether or not Biden will indeed be running for president, he now has a shining example of his tangible political skills to offer up alongside his big grin. And that could well end up being a "big f-ing deal," to quote Biden himself.

Things were a little more complicated on the Republican front, with rumored likely presidential contenders Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan splitting their votes on the cliff deal. Rubio, who was propelled to the Senate in 2010 fueled by Tea Party support, was one of eight senators to oppose the legislation that made permanent Bush-era tax cuts for Americans earning less than $400,000 but allowed increases on the top 2 percent.

[PHOTOS: Deliberating the Fiscal Cliff]

"Of course, many Americans will be relieved in the short term that their taxes won't go up," Rubio said in a press release. "However in the long run, they will be hurt when employers pass on to them one of the largest tax hikes in decades. Furthermore, this deal just postpones the inevitable, the need to solve our growing debt crisis and help the 23 million Americans who can't find the work they need."

Ryan, the GOP's 2012 vice presidential candidate who has been a congressional leader on fiscal issues, went the opposite direction and voted for the deal.

"The American people chose divided government," Ryan said in a press release. "As elected officials, we have a duty to apply our principles to the realities of governing. And we must exercise prudence. We must weigh the benefits and the costs of action and inaction."

Ryan said the legislation contains provisions that he opposes, but made the case that he felt the bill had more good than bad.

[READ: Fiscal Cliff Bill Loaded With Pork]

"The question remains: will the American people be better off if this law passes relative to the alternative?" he asked. "In the final analysis, the answer is undoubtedly yes. I came to Congress to make tough decisions, not to run away from them."

Ron Bonjean, a GOP political consultant, says it's clear 2016 political considerations were made by both Rubio and Ryan but thinks each can make an effective case for their divergent votes.

"People are staking out their positions now and they absolutely have kept that in mind," he says. "There's a case to make for both; there's a case to be made for not wanting taxes to go up and there's a case to be made for making 98 percent of tax cuts permanent."

Ford O'Connell, a Republican political strategist who worked on the McCain-Palin campaign in 2008, says Rubio's vote clearly declared his presidential ambitions, but Ryan's might have indicated he seeks a different path to power.

[ENJOY: Political Cartoons About the Fiscal Cliff]

"Rubio's vote was more with an eye on 2016, whereas I think Paul Ryan wants to be seen more as a pragmatist and a negotiator," he says. "Because even if he does not seek the White House there's still talk of him becoming a bigger leader among congressional Republicans."

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