How Harry Reid Kept His Nose Clean in the Fiscal Fight

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 15: U.S. Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) arrives at the U.S. Capitol for the day October 15, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. With the government shutdown going into the fifttenth day and the deadline for raising the debt ceiling fast approaching, Democrats and Republicans may come to an agreement soon on passing a budget. 
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
Oct. 16, 2013, 7:55 p.m.

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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