WASHINGTON — The Foreign Relations Committee is hardly the most popular Senate panel. Many senators shun what they see as all talk and no action -- no pork-barrel projects for constituents or popular tax cuts to write into law.
But it was on this somewhat esoteric panel that the fast-rising junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, forged a relationship with his future running mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.
Perhaps oddly, it was the committee's senior Republican, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, who helped foster the friendship between the two Democrats.
In his 2004 Senate campaign, Obama emphasized the need to safeguard nuclear stockpiles in the former Soviet Union. It happened to be a signature issue for Lugar, then the chairman. So when Obama arrived in Washington, Lugar encouraged him to join the committee.
Within a few months, the committee's most senior Republican and most junior Democrat traveled together to Russia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. They toured ramshackle laboratories and nuclear storage sites. They were detained at one point by Russian officials and returned home to co-write a bill expanding safeguards. They even gave a joint speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Lugar was surprised that he was willing to craft such a serious bill without much potential for media attention," said a senior Democratic leadership aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as did others, because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. "What Lugar's staff felt was that Obama was more substantive than he expected."
Lugar, it seems, was grateful for the backing from the young senator with rock star popularity. And Biden, like many of the Senate's senior Democrats, was taken by Obama's unexpected seriousness.
"The nuclear proliferation trip with Lugar got Biden's attention. Biden is enough old school and he's been around the Senate long enough that he can spot someone he needs to pay attention to," the senior Democratic aide said. "For Biden, that was the moment."
Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), who also sat on the committee, said the men developed a good working relationship in part because Obama respected the expertise of senior members.
"He's a good learner," said Chafee, who has endorsed Obama. "He keeps his ears open."
In 2006, Democrats won control of the Senate and Biden became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, allowing the up-and-coming Obama to learn about his strengths and weaknesses. Committee sessions gave Biden a stage to demonstrate his formidable mastery of foreign policy. But they also provided a forum for Biden's renowned long-windedness.
As a junior committee member, Obama sat through many of Biden's off-the-cuff speeches, as well as those from other senators. When Obama's turn came, many other senators would be gone, and the witness would be tired.
But Biden was usually there, listening to what Obama had to say.
"There are always a few members who talk because they like the sound of their voice. They don't ask good questions and don't listen to what came before so they ask the same question. Obama always seemed to take a new tack," a former Biden aide recalled.
It would be too much to say that the two became close friends. After all, both men spent little time in Washington outside of Senate meetings, traveling home to be with their families.
"He is not the kind of guy who does the Washington cocktail party circuit," an Obama Senate staffer said.
But as they worked through contentious issues, the two developed a deep respect, aides said.
Obama "didn't have to learn at Biden's feet about issues," the former Biden aide said. "Biden likes the people who take seriously the institution of the Senate and the way it works, and who are serious about getting things done."
Apparently, the feeling was mutual.
"I have seen this man work," Obama said Saturday as he announced that Biden would be his running mate.
"I have sat with him as he chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and been by his side on the campaign trail. And I can tell you that Joe Biden gets it."