Harry Reid’s Getting the Fight He Always Wanted

Benched in budget talks last December, the Senate majority leader now has the White House embracing his hard-line no-negotiations stance—at least so far.

Senate Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid listens during a press conference on negotiations with House Republicans on the government shutdown on Capitol Hill, October 2, 2013.
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
Add to Briefcase
Shane Goldmacher
Oct. 7, 2013, 5:45 p.m.

The dead­line to keep open the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment was only two weeks away, when the White House quietly floated plans for a sum­mit between Pres­id­ent Obama and the four con­gres­sion­al lead­ers. The idea was to show Obama, his sleeves rolled up, en­gaged as Con­gress lurched to­ward a shut­down.

But when top ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials reached out to Cap­it­ol Hill, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id’s of­fice had a mes­sage for them: Don’t do it. Re­id’s team ar­gued such a meet­ing would sug­gest the Demo­crats were will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate when they wer­en’t.

The White House listened. The sum­mit was nixed. And no ser­i­ous talks have oc­curred since.

The epis­ode marked a sharp con­trast from the last budget show­down, in Decem­ber 2012, when Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden went be­hind Re­id’s back to cut a deal with Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky. Re­id was so in­censed by the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s con­ces­sions dur­ing those talks that he crumpled up one White House of­fer and tossed it in­to his of­fice’s roar­ing fire­place in dis­gust.

These days, Re­id is more likely to be writ­ing the Demo­crat­ic play­book than burn­ing it. As the gov­ern­ment shut­down stretches in­to its second week, the White House has em­braced Re­id’s hard-line, no-ne­go­ti­ations stance—at least so far.

“They won’t talk,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, com­plained Sunday on CNN. “They have not moved one inch.”

Cruz and al­lied con­ser­vat­ives in the House may have brought about the shut­down by in­sist­ing on dis­mant­ling or de­fund­ing Obama’s sig­na­ture health care law, but Re­id is firm about mak­ing them pay for it.

Re­id has called Re­pub­lic­ans “an­arch­ists” and “reck­less”; he’s said they’ve “lost their minds” and need to “get a life”; and his of­fice has leaked private emails with House Speak­er John Boehner’s chief of staff. With polling show­ing Re­pub­lic­ans likely to re­ceive the bulk of pub­lic blame for the shut­down, he’s re­fused any con­ces­sions con­di­tioned on re­open­ing the gov­ern­ment.

“The thing about Harry Re­id is he looks like the be­nign old man who runs the gen­er­al store. But he is a pile driver,” said Dav­id Axel­rod, a former top White House strategist for Obama. “When he com­mits to do­ing something, he does it…. You come to ap­pre­ci­ate someone like that and hav­ing someone like that on your side.”


In the last three big fisc­al fights, Re­id ac­qui­esced to the White House’s lead—last Decem­ber, in the sum­mer debt-lim­it bout of 2011, and in the Decem­ber 2010 show­down that res­ul­ted in the Bush tax cuts be­ing ex­ten­ded for two years. Re­id still chafed in private at the out­comes of those past budget battles, ac­cord­ing to those who know him.

Ro­hit Ku­mar, Mc­Con­nell’s former deputy chief of staff and his top ne­go­ti­at­or for those past deals, said, “Every time the White House has got­ten in­to a ne­go­ti­ation with Sen­at­or Mc­Con­nell, from Re­id’s per­spect­ive, he thinks Mc­Con­nell got the bet­ter deal.”

A seni­or Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide, who spoke an­onym­ously to of­fer a can­did as­sess­ment, agreed: “2010, 2012—we def­in­itely felt burned.”

Un­like the 2011 debt-lim­it show­down, when Obama feared fur­ther trip­ping up an already stum­bling eco­nomy ahead of his own reelec­tion, or the Decem­ber 2012 talks that prom­ised to set the tone for Obama’s second term, it’s Re­id’s job on the line this time. Re­id’s fra­gile ma­jor­ity is at stake in 2014, with sev­en Demo­crat­ic-held seats in sol­id GOP states up for grabs.

Re­id is set­ting the un­yield­ing tone and the White House is let­ting him. “It sure looks to me like this is ex­actly the fight Sen­at­or Re­id has been look­ing for for the last couple years,” said Jim Man­ley, Re­id’s former com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or.

Re­id’s stiff stance was en­cap­su­lated in an of­fer let­ter he sent last week to Boehner, ask­ing him to re­open the gov­ern­ment with no strings at­tached. In ex­change, Re­id said he would ap­point law­makers to a budget con­fer­ence com­mit­tee. It was really no of­fer at all. Re­id wanted both those out­comes; Boehner wanted neither.

“We are will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate,” Re­id said on the floor on Monday. “But we won’t ne­go­ti­ate with a gun to our heads.”

Demo­crats are cheer­ing from the side­lines.

“Many times over the last couple weeks friends have been thank­ful aloud that Harry Re­id is in there hanging strong,” said Bill Bur­ton, a former spokes­man for the Obama White House.

Re­id’s cur­rent power comes, in part, from the re­mark­able party dis­cip­line he and his team have im­posed. Of the last 25 Sen­ate roll call votes, Sen­ate Demo­crats note that all the Dems have voted to­geth­er 23 times—in­clud­ing re­buff­ing mul­tiple Boehner of­fers to re­open the gov­ern­ment with vari­ous GOP strings at­tached.

An­oth­er factor in the im­proved Re­id and White House co­ordin­a­tion—”a big factor,” said the seni­or Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate aide—is Katie Beirne Fal­lon. She ran the Sen­ate Demo­crats’ war room un­til mov­ing in­side the White House earli­er this year, help­ing smooth com­mu­nic­a­tions between both ends of Pennsylvania Av­en­ue.


There are risks to let­ting Re­id take the reins. Re­id’s de­cision to leak private emails between his staff and that of the speak­er has soured their repu­ta­tion bey­ond re­pair. “It’s in­cal­cul­able,” Ku­mar said of the dam­age. “This is not a venal sin. This is a car­din­al sin.”

Con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans say Re­id is bet­ter suited to bomb-throw­ing than deal-mak­ing—and his prom­in­ent role will likely only ex­tend the shut­down. “He nev­er misses a chance to in­ject venom in­to the le­gis­lat­ive pro­cess,” Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., said in a state­ment on the first day of the shut­down.

Re­id’s and Obama’s de­cision not to ne­go­ti­ate—peri­od—on the shut­down or loom­ing debt lim­it has also opened the door for Re­pub­lic­ans to tag Demo­crats as the un­reas­on­able ones. In his Sunday ap­pear­ance on ABC’s This Week, Boehner said he simply wanted to have a “con­ver­sa­tion” with Demo­crats. He re­peated the word more than 20 times for em­phas­is.

“It’s time for us to sit down and have a con­ver­sa­tion,” he said. “That’s what the Amer­ic­an people ex­pect.”

Ku­mar, who has as much ex­per­i­ence as any Re­pub­lic­an in deal­ing with Re­id and the Obama White House, said it is pos­sible Obama is giv­ing Re­id free­dom to ne­go­ti­ate without in­ter­fer­ence on the gov­ern­ment shut­down but not on the fast-ap­proach­ing Oct. 17 debt-lim­it dead­line, a far more ser­i­ous fisc­al event.

“We’ve got­ten through shut­downs be­fore; we’ve sur­vived them,” said Ku­mar, who is now in the private sec­tor. “I don’t be­lieve that the pres­id­ent can just sit idly by and take a no-ne­go­ti­at­ing pos­ture and let us hit the debt lim­it.”

As for the scrapped White House sum­mit, it did even­tu­ally oc­cur. It came, with Re­id’s back­ing, on the second day after the gov­ern­ment shut­down. Obama used the 90-minute gath­er­ing to re­it­er­ate his no-ne­go­ti­at­ing stance. Re­id emerged pleased.

“Strong, strong, strong,” Re­id said of the pres­id­ent.

There have been no meet­ings since.

George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.
What We're Following See More »
Johnson on Ballot Everywhere, Followed by Stein, McMullin
1 hours ago
Is McMullin Building the GOP in Exile?
2 hours ago

Evan McMullin, the independent conservative candidate who may win his home state of Utah, is quietly planning to turn his candidacy into a broader movement for principled conservatism. He tells BuzzFeed he's "skeptical" that the Republican party can reform itself "within a generation" and that the party's internal "disease" can't be cured via "the existing infrastructure.” The ex-CIA employee and Capitol Hill staffer says, “I have seen and worked with a lot of very courageous people in my time [but] I have seen a remarkable display of cowardice over the last couple of months in our leaders.” McMullin's team has assembled organizations in the 11 states where he's on the ballot, and adviser Rick Wilson says "there’s actually a very vibrant market for our message in the urban northeast and in parts of the south."

Clinton Up 9 in USA Today Poll; Up 3 According to Fox
2 hours ago

A new USA Today/Suffolk University poll finds Clinton leads Trump by 9 points nationwide, 47% to 38%. A Fox News national poll has Clinton up just three points, 44% to 41% over Trump.

Too Many Potential Enrollees Paying Obamacare Penalties Instead
4 hours ago

One of the main reasons for the recent Obamacare premium hikes is that many potential enrollees have simply decided to pay the tax penalty for remaining uninsured, rather than pay for insurance. More than 8 million people paid the penalty in 2014, and preliminary numbers for 2015 suggest that the number approaches 6 million. "For the young and healthy who are badly needed to make the exchanges work, it is sometimes cheaper to pay the Internal Revenue Service than an insurance company charging large premiums, with huge deductibles."

Cruz: Eight Justices Could Be an Ongoing Situation
5 hours ago

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said that "there was “precedent” for a Supreme Court with fewer than nine justices—appearing to suggest that the blockade on nominee Merrick Garland could last past the election." Speaking to reporters in Colorado, Cruz said: "I would note, just recently, that Justice Breyer observed that the vacancy is not impacting the ability of the court to do its job. That’s a debate that we are going to have.”


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.