Biden, who flashed a store membership card as he entered the city's first Costco on its opening day, said consumer confidence is growing—as demonstrated by the huge crowd at the gleaming new store in Northeast Washington.
"The last thing we need to do is dash that" confidence by imposing a tax increase of about $2,200 for a typical middle-class family, Biden said. Bush-era tax cuts are scheduled to expire Jan. 1, the same time as across-the-board spending cuts are scheduled to take effect. The combination of tax hikes and spending cuts could spike unemployment and bring on a new recession.
Biden and President Barack Obama have pressed Congress to extend middle-class tax cuts while raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, while congressional Republicans have pushed to extend cuts for all taxpayers.
Biden said Congress should act on the middle-class tax cuts before Christmas to spur consumer confidence and then fight later over tax cuts for families earning more than $250,000 a year.
"We have a lot we have to settle, but there's one thing we should all agree on and that's the middle-class tax cut should be made permanent. I think it's important Congress acts now, I mean right now," Biden said at an impromptu news conference at the store, where he was surrounded by shoppers and employees eager to shake hands, take photos and even hug the vice president.
"I'm looking for pies," Biden announced as he began shopping, helped by Costco employee Ivey Stewart, who was steering his shopping cart around the store.
Biden bought an apple pie, along with a stack of children's books, a 32-inch Panasonic TV, fire logs and other items. He said the books were intended for a Delaware charity supported by his wife, Jill.
Biden said he was optimistic about reaching a deal to avoid the fiscal crisis and said, "all these folks in this store, man, it's going to make a difference. Take $2,200 out of their pockets next year, you have a big problem."
Biden was joined at the store by Costco CEO Craig Jelinek and co-founder Jim Sinegal, who were at the grand opening ceremony earlier in the day.
Sinegal said he also was optimistic a deal would be reached with Congress.
"I think they're going to solve it," said Sinegal, an Obama supporter who spoke at the Democratic National Convention in September. "It appears everybody is motivated to do it and I hope they do. It's so important for the nation."
Costco said Wednesday it will spend $3 billion to pay a special dividend of $7 per share next month ahead of higher tax rates that may kick in come January, if Congress and the president can't reach a compromise to avoid the fiscal cliff.
Costco is opening at least three stores in the Washington area, and Sinegal said the company was "looking forward to a reasonably good Christmas," noting that sales were up 7 percent over last year in stores that had been open for a year.
At the end of his 45-minute visit, Biden thanked reporters for shopping with him.
Then, looking down at his overstuffed cart, he joked, "now you know why my wife doesn't let me shop alone."
Reach Matthew Daly on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC