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
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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.
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