By Alexander Bolton - 10/15/13 11:45 PM EDT
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has resumed the role of chief dealmaker of his conference after two weeks of government shutdown — and his colleagues are relieved.
McConnell’s reemergence as a negotiator has eased what had become a very tense relationship with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“There was a distinct turn in the last week,” a senior Democratic aide said of the relationship between Reid and McConnell.
During the vitriolic debate between Reid and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) leading up to the government shutdown, McConnell had stayed largely out of the public spotlight.
His role as leader in the budget talks has been complicated because he’s up for reelection in 2014, and is facing a stiff primary challenge from conservative Matt Bevin (R) and a credible Democratic opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
His absence created frustration as GOP senators watched freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) seemingly gain control of party strategy through his conservative allies in the House.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), an outspoken conservative, bluntly told McConnell in one private meeting that there was a leadership vacuum in the Senate.
McConnell began to reassert authority last week, first when he convened a meeting of GOP senators in the chamber’s Strom Thurmond Room to discuss a compromise proposal crafted by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
He kept his distance at first.
“McConnell is providing a venue for members to discuss potential solutions to a crisis that Reid has been ignoring at best or inflaming at worst,” a Senate GOP aide said at the time.
But McConnell quickly seized personal control of the situation, meeting and trading phone calls with Reid to try and hammer out a deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.
A Senate aide familiar with the talks said that “McConnell couldn’t bear the idea of Collins cutting the deal.”
The aide said Reid was quick to sit down with McConnell because he did not want to get cut out of talks, as he was when McConnell and Vice President Biden hashed out a deal to make permanent most of the Bush-era tax rates.
“Reid didn’t want to be on the outside again and criticizing it from afar,” the source said.
Six Democratic senators had negotiated with Collins to shape her compromise proposal, which has become the basis of the emerging Senate deal on government funding and the debt limit.
Reid and McConnell were in danger of being left on the sidelines while a bipartisan group of centrists pursued a deal on their own.
Senate Republicans were visibly relieved McConnell reasserted himself after days of uncertainty over the party’s strategy while federal agencies remained shuttered and their approval rating dropped.
“Mitch is leading those [talks] and many of us are working with counterparts on the other side of the aisle to float some ideas,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said last Thursday.
McConnell played a central role in the negotiations to pass the Budget Control Act, avoiding a default in the summer of 2011, and the New Year’s Eve deal last year to make most of the Bush-era tax rates permanent.
His absence early on, and that of Biden, from the debt ceiling and government shutdown talks raised doubts among senators about the possibility of a deal.
“Maybe we need to get Joe Biden out of the witness protection program,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) quipped over the weekend.
McConnell’s reentry into the game is not without political risk.
As details of the Senate deal emerged Monday, the Senate Conservatives Fund issued a scathing statement.
“So now Mitch McConnell is negotiating the Republican surrender,” said Matt Hoskins, the group’s executive director. “It’s humiliating.”
The relationship between Reid and McConnell had reached a low point in July when Reid threatened to use a controversial procedural tactic known as the “nuclear option” to curtail the Republicans’ power to filibuster executive branch nominees.
McConnell warned in a passionate speech on the Senate floor that if Reid went ahead with his plan, he would “be remembered as the worst majority leader ever.”
Reid, in turn, accused McConnell of breaking his pledge at the beginning of the year to allow speedier votes on the president’s nominees.
“The Republican leader has failed to live up to his commitments. He has failed to do what he said he would do, move nominations by regular order except in extraordinary circumstances,” Reid said.
Their relationship has bounced back in the last week.
Reid said Monday he’s always worked well with McConnell.
“That’s greatly exaggerated,” he said of reports of their acrimonious relationship. “Sen. McConnell and I have worked together more than 30 years, very closely since we’ve been whips. So, no problem.”
When McConnell wanted to suspend negotiations with Reid to give Boehner room to craft a competing bill to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, Reid quickly agreed to wait for the House to act.
A source familiar with the talks said Reid and McConnell still feel “good” about the progress they’ve made in recent days.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has served with both leaders since 2003, said Reid and McConnell never let their squabbles become personal.
“They’re pros, they’ve been around a while,” he said. “They’re tough, they know their jobs. That’s why we elected them, because the rest of us are smart enough not to do these jobs.
“If this stuff were personal, none of us would do it. It can get personal, but generally this is a business.”
Both Reid and McConnell are former lawyers, he noted.
“Being a lawyer’s good training for this job,” he said.
But they have not quite reached the level of genuine friendship.
On Tuesday, Graham asked Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), with whom he was walking to the Russell Senate Office Building, how to characterize the Reid-McConnell relationship.
Coons at first stared at Graham as though it was a trick question.
“Challenging,” Coons finally said.