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
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.”

THOUGHT HE COULD DO BET­TER

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.

NOT A RISK-FREE AP­PROACH

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 »
PROCEDURES NOT FOLLOWED
Trump Not on Ballot in Minnesota
18 hours ago
THE LATEST
MOB RULE?
Trump on Immigration: ‘I Don’t Know, You Tell Me’
21 hours ago
THE LATEST

Perhaps Donald Trump can take a plebiscite to solve this whole messy immigration thing. At a Fox News town hall with Sean Hannity last night, Trump essentially admitted he's "stumped," turning to the audience and asking: “Can we go through a process or do you think they have to get out? Tell me, I mean, I don’t know, you tell me.”

Source:
BIG CHANGE FROM WHEN HE SELF-FINANCED
Trump Enriching His Businesses with Donor Money
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Donald Trump "nearly quintupled the monthly rent his presidential campaign pays for its headquarters at Trump Tower to $169,758 in July, when he was raising funds from donors, compared with March, when he was self-funding his campaign." A campaign spokesman "said the increased office space was needed to accommodate an anticipated increase in employees," but the campaign's paid staff has actually dipped by about 25 since March. The campaign has also paid his golf courses and restaurants about $260,000 since mid-May.

Source:
QUESTIONS OVER IMMIGRATION POLICY
Trump Cancels Rallies
2 days ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump probably isn't taking seriously John Oliver's suggestion that he quit the race. But he has canceled or rescheduled rallies amid questions over his stance on immigration. Trump rescheduled a speech on the topic that he was set to give later this week. Plus, he's also nixed planned rallies in Oregon and Las Vegas this month.

Source:
‘STRATEGY AND MESSAGING’
Sean Hannity Is Also Advising Trump
3 days ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump's Fox News brain trust keeps growing. After it was revealed that former Fox chief Roger Ailes is informally advising Trump on debate preparation, host Sean Hannity admitted over the weekend that he's also advising Trump on "strategy and messaging." He told the New York Times: “I’m not hiding the fact that I want Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States. I never claimed to be a journalist.”

Source:
×