In the Senate, Signs of a Breakthrough Are as Elusive as Ever

Ninety-eight senators appear on the floor to listen to Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks at the Capitol.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
Oct. 8, 2013, 12:26 p.m.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id’s de­liv­ery doesn’t seem de­signed to per­suade — at least not in the usu­al sense. With his hushed tones and tend­ency to look down as he speaks, he’ll wear you down be­fore you rise to your feet in rap­tur­ous agree­ment with his ar­gu­ment.

“I don’t come here to ar­gue and badger people,” Re­id said, stand­ing be­side a poster read­ing, “Open the Gov­ern­ment/Pay our bills/And let’s ne­go­ti­ate,” dur­ing a rare floor speech Tues­day pre­ceded by a so-called live quor­um call.

As the pres­id­ent held a news con­fer­ence at the White House over the ap­proach­ing debt lim­it, and with gov­ern­ment still closed, Re­id called for all sen­at­ors to file to their desks and hear an im­port­ant mes­sage.

But the spec­tacle on the floor hin­ted at no break­through; rather Re­id told his col­leagues that his po­s­i­tion was no bluff and not merely a start­ing point for ne­go­ti­ations. The Sen­ate CR and a clean debt-ceil­ing ex­ten­sion aren’t just of­fers. They’re the of­fers, in Demo­crats’ view.

Sur­roun­ded by 98 of his col­leagues, Re­id launched a fa­mil­i­ar-sound­ing speech that called on Re­pub­lic­ans to ac­cept the Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate’s meas­ures. Some Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats strained to hear Re­id. Oth­ers pulled out cell phones to read. Demo­crat­ic Sens. Bar­bara Box­er of Cali­for­nia and Carl Lev­in of Michigan listened with their hands on their chins.

At the heart of Re­id’s lo­gic is that Re­pub­lic­ans will not want to risk the per­cep­tion of caus­ing a de­fault.

“I’m cyn­ic­al by nature. That way I’m not dis­ap­poin­ted as much as my friends who are op­tim­ist­ic,” Re­id said. “I am op­tim­ist­ic, [though], the Re­pub­lic­ans are not go­ing to hold the full faith of the United States host­age.”

Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell of Ken­tucky rose, after Re­id all but urged him to get real. Re­pub­lic­ans want to ne­go­ti­ate, was his mes­sage.

“We now have di­vided gov­ern­ment. It means we have to talk to each oth­er and get to an out­come,” Mc­Con­nell said. “And I think it’s far past time to get that done, and I hope, giv­en where we are today, that there’s ad­equate in­cent­ive to get those talks star­ted, prin­cip­ally between the ma­jor­ity lead­er and the speak­er.”

Sen. John Mc­Cain de­livered a pas­sion­ate speech ur­ging his col­leagues on both sides to work to­geth­er, sug­gest­ing a re­peal of the med­ic­al-device tax as a pos­sible path bey­ond dis­agree­ment.

“We know how it’s gonna end,” Mc­Cain said, adding that the gov­ern­ment would open and the debt ceil­ing would be raised. “Why don’t we do this soon­er rather than later?”

Later, Budget Chair­wo­man Patty Mur­ray of Wash­ing­ton sought to go to a budget con­fer­ence with the House, but was ul­ti­mately blocked once again.

Re­cently, Sen. Johnny Isak­son, R-Ga., walk­ing in the Sen­ate sub­way tun­nel, offered his view on how the prob­lem would — or wouldn’t any time soon — get solved.

“You’ve got the im­mov­able ob­ject and the ir­res­ist­ible force,” he said. “Both sides are dug in. Both sides are in­transigent.”

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