By Alexander Bolton - 03/03/11 01:32 AM EST
Speaker John Boehner escalated hostilities between the House and Senate to a new level Wednesday by launching a political attack against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
The surprise criticism of Reid, whose spokesman quickly fired back at the Ohio Republican, came as Congress cleared a bipartisan stopgap bill that at least temporarily averted a government shutdown.
President Obama on Wednesday signed the two-week continuing resolution (CR) without issuing comment on it. The quick enactment of the measure was considered a significant victory for Boehner because the Senate essentially rubber-stamped the House-passed bill.
Boehner isn’t resting on his laurels, however. During a speech Wednesday morning, he accused Reid of not having a plan to address the $1.6 trillion federal deficit. A Reid spokesman countered that Boehner is getting pushed around by Tea Party-allied freshman members.
The back-and-forth came on the same day Senate Democratic leaders announced that Vice President Joe Biden would take a leading role in spending negotiations with congressional Republicans.
It also came just two days after Boehner and Reid met in the majority leader’s office to discuss the budget.
Reid wanted to pass a month-long CR, but Boehner refused.
The Senate voted 91-9 on Wednesday to pass the House bill that cuts $4 billion from the 2011 budget. It funds the government through March 18.
A small mix of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats opposed the bill, including Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
During the first two months of the 112th Congress, Boehner and Reid had occasionally jabbed at each other, but had largely pulled their punches. That changed Wednesday.
During his speech to the Credit Union National Association, Boehner stated: “I’m not sure whether Sen. Reid has a plan to cut spending and keep the government running. If he does, I think the American people would be interested in seeing it. If he doesn’t, I think he owes the American people an explanation.”
Those remarks stunned Democratic leaders, who are accustomed to barbs from the No. 2 House Republican leader, Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), but not from Boehner.
Jon Summers, Reid’s spokesman, swung back hard.
“That’s tough talk from someone who is being bossed around by a bunch of freshmen,” Summers said. “It’s surprising that the Speaker of the House is unaware that the Senate is voting on a bill to fund the government and cut spending [Wednesday] morning.”
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said he was surprised by Boehner’s blast.
“It does discourage me,” Durbin said. “I know John and it’s not his style. John worked closely with Democrats for No Child Left Behind, and I have a very positive feeling toward him. But I sense that he is facing a firestorm in his own caucus from the Tea Party members who are demanding that he show his teeth in this relationship, and I think that’s unfortunate.”
Aides say Boehner and Reid have a cordial relationship, while noting they have not worked extensively with one another.
After the Nov. 2 election, Reid praised Boehner as “a consensus guy” who is “willing to work with us.”
A Senate Democratic aide said Wednesday’s flare-up does not necessarily mean the relationship between Reid and Boehner has gone sour.
“Reid’s spokesman saw what Boehner said and responded in a way that a spokesman will,” said the staffer. “That won’t change the fact that Reid and Boehner have a courteous and professional relationship.”
Still, the stakes over the budget are extremely high, and both leaders are under an enormous amount of pressure to broker the best deal for their respective parties.
Reid will be getting much more help from the White House in the coming weeks.
Going forward, most of the Democratic spending negotiations will be handled by Biden and senior White House officials.
Senate Democrats are meeting to identify spending cuts they can coalesce behind, but Biden is in charge of making offers to Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“The White House is inviting both sides to negotiate a long-term solution led by Vice President Biden,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Conference. “If Republicans are serious about negotiating a responsible compromise, they should accept this invitation immediately and get to work.”
Sources stressed that Reid will still be heavily involved in budget negotiations. Reid’s chief of staff, David Krone will continue to play a central role in talks with Boehner’s top aide, Barry Jackson, and other GOP negotiators, they said.
The tapping of Biden to be the Democrats’ lead negotiator was expected by Democratic lawmakers. The White House has had a deliberate strategy of keeping Obama above the legislative fray in Congress to preserve his political capital for later in the debate.
That frustrated some Senate Democrats, who were outmaneuvered by House Republicans.
White House press secretary Jay Carney, who until recently served as Biden’s spokesman, said on Wednesday that the president’s team has demonstrated a willingness to compromise.
Obama has embraced a five-year spending freeze, but is willing to go further.
“We can do more,” Carney added.