By Bob Cusack - 02/09/11 11:10 AM EST
John Boehner and Harry Reid have thrown a few jabs at each other in the first round of the new Congress, but have largely pulled their punches.
The emerging relationship between the two leaders will go a long way in determining how much gets done between the Republican House and Democratic-led Senate.
After the Nov. 2 election, the Nevada Democrat praised Boehner as “a consensus guy” who is “willing to work with us.”
However, the clash of ideas between Boehner and Reid is significant, with the Ohio Republican seeking to eradicate earmarks and the healthcare reform law — both of which Reid has staunchly defended.
Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said, “On the issues, they differ greatly.”
In some ways, the first few weeks of the 112th Congress have been similar to the opening round of a boxing match, with both Boehner and Reid feeling their opponent out.
In Reid’s autobiography, The Good Fight, the senator noted he dabbled in boxing: “I could assess situations well, and I learned to recognize and exploit an opposing fighter’s weaknesses.”
There have been some bicameral fireworks this year, most notably when Reid and his lieutenants warned Boehner that they would block any effort to eradicate the new health law.
Boehner quickly replied in kind, mocking the “backroom” deal that Democrats struck with the pharmaceutical industry. He said the House would move forward on the repeal effort, finishing his letter with, “You’re welcome.”
Early last month, Reid criticized House Republicans for passing a new rule that will make it easier to reduce spending on transportation, calling the GOP “nuts.”
The partisan jockeying has not become personal between the legislators.
Last November, Boehner and Reid met privately and ordered their aides not to reveal any details of the discussion.
One common bond between the men is that they did not grow up in wealthy families. Boehner is the son of a bartender, and was raised with 11 siblings in the same house, equipped with one bathroom. Reid is a hard-rock miner’s son whose family was quite poor. He later would come to the nation’s capital, working as a U.S. Capitol Police officer at night while attending law school.
Baker said, “Reid respects people who came up the hard way. These are two guys who paid their dues.”
It remains to be seen if the relationship will remain amicable in the coming weeks, especially with the budget battle now front and center on the congressional agenda.
Asked for a prediction on whether the Boehner-Reid relationship will turn sour, Baker deferred, saying, “It’s a work in progress.”
Reid last week called the House Republican proposal to cut $32 billion from fiscal 2011 spending levels “draconian” and “unworkable.”
Still, Reid didn’t spend his whole press conference attacking the GOP, saying, “We are happy to work with Republicans; we recognize that there has to be some long-term financial austerity.”
The most direct barb between Boehner and Reid came late last month when the Speaker appeared on “Fox News Sunday.”
Boehner said, “We’ve got the Senate majority leader, who says there’s no problem in Social Security. And if we can’t get Senate Democrats and their leader to recognize that we’ve got real problems, I don’t know how we begin to move down this path of having this adult conversation that … I, frankly, like the president, would like to have.”
By and large, Reid and President Obama worked well together in the last Congress. But this session started off with Boehner and the president working against Reid on earmarks. After Boehner embraced a two-year moratorium on the pet projects, Obama followed suit in his State of the Union address despite Reid’s strong protests.
While Reid and Boehner have not ripped each other, their lieutenants have not held back.
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the No. 3 Democrat in the upper chamber, has lambasted House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his plan calling for major cuts to entitlement programs.
Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) repeatedly challenged Reid to take up the GOP’s healthcare repeal bill.
Reid, who initially indicated such a vote would not occur, subsequently allowed the repeal bill to hit the floor. It was rejected along strict party lines last week.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said, “Speaker Boehner and Leader Reid have a cordial relationship, but the Speaker understands the critical need to have an adult conversation about saving entitlement programs like Social Security, and that is difficult when congressional Democrats — like Sen. Reid — refuse to admit there is a problem.”
Reid spokesman Jon Summers said, “Sen. Reid respects Speaker Boehner, but he disagrees with his policies that would eliminate Social Security as we know it, increase the deficit and put insurance companies back in charge of patients’ healthcare.”