Even before the Senate’s presiding officer banged the gavel last week signaling the close of a vote that would reopen government and avoid default, Senate Democratic leaders were planning their next move. Majority Leader Harry Reid and his closest lieutenants filed into a television studio on the Capitol’s third floor and, under the glare of bright lights, declared victory and laid out the Senate Democrats’ next three legislative priorities: immigration reform, a budget conference, and the farm bill. The moment had the feel of an award-show acceptance speech, only with the star adding a line about her coming attractions.
“What is the big issue out there? People complain about the deficit,” Reid said. “How about let’s [do] immigration, a trillion dollars [in additional tax revenues], something that’s fair and reasonable that this country has needed for a long time? So I look forward to the next venture, which is making sure we do immigration reform.”
Reid then stepped aside for Sens. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, and Patty Murray, the Budget Committee chairwoman, to make the case for the farm bill and the impending budget conference—something Murray tried to convoke 21 times on the floor this Congress.
The day after Congress passed the deal Reid helped broker, President Obama publicly embraced the Senate Democratic vision. Obama called on Congress to take up a budget conference, immigration reform, and the farm bill. In one move, the president merged Senate Democratic policy goals with his own and cemented the notion that Senate Democrats and the White House would stand united, their relationship rehabilitated after previous last-minute deals left Senate Democrats feeling marginalized. “Those are three specific things that would make a huge difference in our economy right now, and we could get them done by the end of the year,” Obama said, championing Reid’s causes. “And that’s just the big stuff.”
The decision to join forces came in July, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said, when Reid and Obama met to discuss the details of their strategy heading into the fall showdown. Both agreed the best course would be not to negotiate over the debt ceiling, on the assumption that Republicans would buckle under the threat of economic catastrophe.
Reid used that Democratic unity—Democrats voted as a bloc on each of the votes taken during the government shutdown—as a tool to parry House Republican proposals, but also as a kind of down payment on future negotiations. “Everyone knows my caucus has been locked strong together,” Reid said. “We’ve worked with the president. We’ve been a real team.”
After being sidestepped at the last minute by Vice President Joe Biden during the fiscal-cliff talks in late 2012, Senate Democrats felt spurned by the White House, multiple leadership aides said. In particular, Democrats worried about the White House’s floating the so-called chained Consumer Price Index—changing how Social Security cost-of-living hikes are calculated—as a way to win GOP support for a larger deficit-reduction bargain. Chained CPI worries liberals because it’s viewed as stingier way of calculating benefits.
Now, after the clear political win over the latest showdown—even Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in interviews compared the GOP’s maneuver to a football team punting from deep within its own territory—Senate Democrats think they’ve hit on a formula that could work again: Hang together and make the message clear from the start. “I think Democrats showed that by sticking together we can push the Republicans, if not to come to the table, at least we can push them to drop their demands for concessions every time we go into another crisis,” said a Democratic Senate aide. “The theory that sticking together and holding firm would break them out of this cycle has been proven.”
Buoyed by that notion, Democrats have begun to telegraph a possible path forward in the coming budget conference, suggesting a possible compromise that would include trading a relaxation of the sequester for “permanent structural changes to mandatory programs,” according to a Senate Democratic aide. The thinking goes: Republicans could argue that they traded budget cuts that last only until 2022 for permanent changes. Just what Democrats would accept in terms of changes to mandatory programs is still murky, though; Democrats are being deliberately vague about what they might be willing to swallow.
“I know that Democrats are willing to compromise to get a deal, and I’m hopeful Republicans will as well,” Murray said recently.
Privately, though, aides admit that the strong relationship between Senate Democrats and the White House could aggravate Obama’s unpopularity among House Republicans. Republicans point out, and Democrats worry, that Obama’s early blessing could worsen the chances for future agreements. One Democratic leadership aide said Democrats have encouraged Obama to “stay in the background” for fear of prematurely torpedoing budget discussions.
Indeed, Senate Democrats have observed a catch-22 with regard to Obama and House Republicans. “It’s always funny to see when the president engages: House Republicans say the president is poisoning the well,” said a Senate Democratic aide. “When he doesn’t, they say we need the president at the table.”
Such fickleness, though, is standard operating procedure for the party out of power, and it isn’t surprising that Republicans engage in it or that Democrats eagerly point it out. What is new for the 113th Congress is the degree to which Reid and Obama are on the same page. “There’s a lot more to do,” Reid said after his last-minute deal passed. “As the president said yesterday and I say today, let’s move on.”
This article appears in the October 26, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as Follow the Leader.