In his boxing days, Harry Reid was tough to open up. “I’ve had lots of fights,” Reid said on the first Saturday of the government shutdown, “never had a bloody nose.”
The majority leader came through the shutdown and debt-ceiling standoff similarly unscathed, steering his caucus to a deal that surrenders very little and — crucially — preserves bargaining power for Senate Democrats in the future.
Publicly, Democrats say the deal required them to concede on the spending level in the continuing resolution, which reopens government. Democrats want a higher topline spending level, $1.058 trillion, which would unwind sequestration, while Republicans want a lower, $986 billion level that keeps the sequester in place.
Toward the end of the showdown, this became one of Reid’s preferred rhetorical jabs at Republicans, and at House Speaker John Boehner in particular. Boehner reneged on an agreement he made behind closed doors to accept the lower, $986 billion level, Reid argued.
But the deal Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell brokered achieves short-term Democratic goals. In particular, the deal reopens government without Obamacare concessions and sets up the budget conference Democrats have been seeking since March.
Standing just off the Senate floor, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., pointed out that Democrats have not ceded anything on their spending figure, despite Republican claims that the spending level contained in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which includes sequestration, is safe.
“Both parties maintain their argument. We didn’t give in,” Kaine said. But the point is that Democrats will take their $1.058 trillion spending figure into conference and argue for rolling back the spending caps, which they’ve long opposed.
That discretionary-spending figure has become a beachhead of sorts for Reid and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray of Washington, and it represents an opportunity to reopen the debate over sequestration cuts. Indeed, Senate Republicans held on to the Budget Control Act cuts as one of the only lifelines for them in the Reid-McConnell deal. But even that seemed to give meager solace.
“Look, we still keep sequester alive,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. “It’s a crazy way to govern, and it’s not the best way to govern and I think it hurts our military, but it’s certainly is the only way to keep this president from spending us into even more bankruptcy.”
That GOP disappointment underlined how big a bow Reid was taking on the Senate floor as he announced the agreement.
“The eyes of the world have been on Washington all this week,” Reid said. “And that is a gross understatement. And while they witnessed a great deal of political discord today, they’ll see Congress reaching historic bipartisan agreement to reopen the government and avoid default on the nation’s bills.”
Behind closed doors, it was Reid, Kaine said, who kept members up to date on discussions. Confident of their upper hand politically, Democrats didn’t question the strategy.
“The unity was an important part of the ultimate outcome,” Kaine said.
From the start, when House Republicans began to send bills to the Senate that successively chipped away at Obamacare, Reid held to his mantra: Let’s have a “clean” continuing resolution, let’s open government.
After the government partially shut down and the debt-limit deadline grew closer, and Republicans called on Reid to negotiate, the mantra changed slightly: Reopen government, pay our bills, and then let’s negotiate.
As Republicans called for talks over their proposals, Reid and the White House said they would not negotiate over the debt ceiling and continued to pound Republicans over the shutdown.
On the second Saturday of the shutdown, the rhetoric cooled some, and Reid held talks with McConnell, Alexander, and Schumer, one of his top lieutenants and the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate. “The conversations were extremely cordial but very preliminary, of course, nothing conclusive,” Reid said on Saturday.
On Sunday and Monday, the talks hit a snag as Republicans argued that Democrats wanted to bust the spending caps, and Democrats rejected a plan based on a proposal from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that would have delayed the medical-device tax linked to Obamacare.
On Tuesday, Boehner’s last-minute attempt at offering his own House legislation briefly enraged Reid. “It’s nothing more than a blatant attack on bipartisanship,” he said. “Extremist Republicans in the House of Representatives are attempting to torpedo the Senate’s bipartisan progress with a bill that can’t pass the Senate.”
By the end of the day Tuesday, Boehner’s conference rejected his proposal. Reid and McConnell reconnected and aides began talking, guardedly, about details of the last-minute deal. After noon on Wednesday, the deal was done. Reid had worn his political opponents out.
The leaders announced their agreement from the well of the Senate — McConnell with resignation in his voice, and Reid with soaring rhetoric.
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