Immigration, guns, and the deficit. The trifecta of thorny issues facing the new Congress is the heaviest legislative lift since President Obama’s first year in office when stimulus, climate change, Wall Street, health care, and immigration reform topped the agenda. And, this time around, House Republicans are largely ceding the first moves to the Senate, giving Harry Reid the ball.
Like any good CEO, the Democratic Senate majority leader is delegating the issues to a group of empowered lieutenants. And unlike some recent high-profile back-room deals—the 2011 debt-limit and fiscal-cliff deals, to name two—the Nevadan is running immigration, guns, and the budget through the regular process. That means giving power back to committee chairs—a turfy bunch who were none too pleased to be left on the sidelines in the recent fiscal debates. One Senate aide said that many senators thought it was “complete b.s.” that they were left out of the deal-making and then sent home to defend their votes—and the final product—to their constituents.
Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus will run point on the debt-limit debate and taxes; Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray will head the writing of the Democratic spending plan; and immigration reform and gun control will bear Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy’s fingerprints. Then there’s Chuck Schumer. Reid and Schumer are close, discussing everything from fundraising and candidate recruitment to floor strategy and member management. The two talk 10 to 15 times a day, often starting with Schumer calling Reid’s home in the morning and ending with a call before Reid’s10 p.m. bedtime. “Harry Reid and I are just best of friends. We call each other foxhole buddies because we’ve been through the wars together. We call each other up on weekends and ask each other what movies to see,” Schumer told National Journal.
So it’s no surprise that Reid has charged Schumer—the No. 3 Senate Democrat best known as a political axman and mouthpiece—with helping on two of the most politically explosive issues facing Washington: immigration and gun control. The senator from New York has worked for years on comprehensive immigration reform, and as a member of the “Gang of Eight” he helped craft the bipartisan principles the group laid out earlier this week. On guns, Schumer is working with a bipartisan group of senators to push for strengthened and expanded background checks for gun buyers.
But whatever legislation he is able to help craft, it must go through Leahy, and Schumer says the two are working closely together. That’s why before the Gang of Eight unveiled its framework Monday, Schumer made two phone calls Sunday: one to the president and the other to the Judiciary chairman. On guns, an aide said, Schumer is auditioning his background-check proposal for Leahy, hoping to impress the Vermont Democrat enough that he makes it the main legislative vehicle for a gun-control package.
For his part, Leahy is keeping his cards close. “I’m going to be writing some of this legislation. We’ve got several proposals on immigration. We’re going to have hearings on all of them and we’ll pick out what’s best,” he told National Journal. And, just so there’s no mistake about who is in charge, he added, “I’ve always set the agenda in Judiciary.”
Reid’s decision to allow these issues to work through the process, instead of being dictated by leadership, has allowed for a “natural sorting,” according to one senior Democratic aide. For instance, it now looks like background checks, and not an assault-weapons ban, will be the centerpiece of a gun-control package. Had Reid tried to dictate the outcome at the outset, it would have upset senators. Instead, he’s winning cooperation. Asked if she would prefer her assault-weapons ban be included in legislation or offered as an amendment, as appears increasingly likely, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., hedged, telling NJ, “We’ll see what comes about. This is a long road.”
Then there’s the issue of putting the nation’s fiscal house in order. Enter Murray and Baucus. As Budget chair, Murray has the more immediate job of outlining a spending plan by April 15. Senate Democrats expect Murray to lead an effort to write a budget that is more political statement than policy document. As one Democratic aide said, the budget “will articulate where the parties are at their cores, but that’s not where we’re going to end up governing.”
Murray described her mission as “trying to help our caucus define what our goals and priorities are within the budget process.” She’s particularly well-positioned to do it. As former head of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee and cochair of the now-defunct debt-cutting super committee, Murray knows the hardball politics and complicated fiscal issues that intersect in her new role. And, unlike former Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, Murray is always on the same page as Reid.
Murray, a happy liberal warrior from Washington state, will also be working closely with Montana’s Baucus—a cautious, moderate, red-state Democrat—particularly if Democrats choose to use the budget to fast-track tax reform. But Baucus, worried about alienating Republicans right off the bat, has reservations about using tax reform to raise revenues when there are other avenues available.
If there is any chance of tax reform passing it has to be bipartisan, and Baucus is one of the Senate Democrats’ best links to the GOP. He has weekly meetings with Republican House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Finance Committee. On New Year’s Eve, as senators waited to vote on the fiscal-cliff deal, it was Baucus who wandered over to Mitch McConnell’s office to wish the Senate Republican leader a happy new year.
So it’s on this team of 21st-century confidants and old bull chairmen that Reid’s agenda and legacy rest.
This article appears in the Feb. 2, 2013, edition of National Journal as Trust Fall.