By Alexander Bolton - 01/05/11 11:41 AM EST
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) will enjoy more leverage in his dealings with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in the 112th Congress, but aides say that the fundamental relationship between the two men hasn’t changed.
“They are as close as two people with limited social skills can be,” said a Senate Democratic aide.
But when the new Congress begins on Wednesday, McConnell's conference will be six members stronger, meaning he will have a greater say in the Senate schedule.
That doesn’t sound like a lot of power for the GOP leader but, given the complex rules regarding Senate debate, it means McConnell will have more influence in determining which legislation comes to the Senate floor.
Aides, however, point out that even though the two men’s relationship was strained during the 111th Congress, when Senate Republicans waged 91 filibusters, they’ve maintained their respect for one another and the upper chamber.
“They’re both old bulls,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “They know how the Senate works and they respect the institution.”
Reid and McConnell have more in common than not.
They are both seen as backroom politicians who are more comfortable negotiating complex legislation behind the scenes than making impassioned arguments in front of television cameras, though McConnell has worked on his public speaking skills with success over the last few years. Both are also known for being attentive to their conferences and for building consensus before moving ahead with proposals in public.
Reid, however, is not afraid to speak his mind, even though it gives his press handlers heartburn. He famously declared former President George W. Bush a “liar” and a “loser.” McConnell is much more cautious in his public pronouncements. His declaration that limiting President Obama to a single term is the “single most important” job of Senate Republicans was a notable exception.
Both men are also senior members of the Senate Appropriations Committee and worked closely together in 2004 to devise a reform proposal to change the Senate’s oversight of intelligence agencies.
And McConnell showed his consideration for Reid last year when he ruled out the possibility of visiting Nevada to campaign for Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle.
The decision struck a contrast with former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who campaigned against Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) in 2004.
Likewise, Reid didn’t campaign against McConnell in 2008, when the GOP leader was a Democratic target.
And aides don’t expect that to change along with Wednesday’s power shift.
In the 112th Congress, Democrats will control 53 Senate seats — six fewer than last year — and Republicans will control the House.
The expanded GOP voting bloc will make it more difficult for Reid to shield his vulnerable members from taking votes on repeal of the healthcare reform law, spending cuts and other controversial issues.
But the expanded GOP majority could also make it easier for Reid to pick off Republican votes to support Democratic bills, Senate Democratic aides argue.
Democratic aides say centrists such as Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) will be under less pressure to stick to the party line, because their votes alone cannot give Democrats legislative victories.
They also predict McConnell will have less freedom to negotiate deals with Reid because of an incoming class of staunch conservatives, including Sens.-elect Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).
“McConnell is beholden to the members of his conference and has to worry about his own leadership position,” said the Democratic aide.
GOP aides say McConnell will be under less pressure than in the 111th Congress, when a single Republican defection would hand Democrats legislative victory.
“We have a lot more to work with in terms of votes,” said the senior Republican aide. “Last year our margin of error was literally zero.”
McConnell’s strategy in the 111th Congress was to hold his conference together and present a loud chorus of unified opposition in hope of creating a broader national debate.
The strategy worked on healthcare reform, as Republicans successfully portrayed the legislation as a partisan package of special deals Democrats rammed through the Senate on Christmas Eve.
It will be tougher for McConnell to hold centrists in the 112th Congress, because their votes alone won’t make the difference, say Democratic and Republican strategists.
“There will be four or five Republicans who will vote with Democrats consistently on the biggest issues,” a former Senate Republican leadership aide predicted.
“That means Reid will only need to shop for two or three Republicans to get cloture,” the former aide said in reference to the 60 votes needed to end GOP filibusters.
The former aide, who worked closely with McConnell, said the leader’s relationship with Reid is different from how it appears in public.
Reid, empowered by a 59-seat majority, was often able to dictate the terms of Senate debate to McConnell. Often the Democratic leader would use a procedure known as “filling the tree” to deny Republicans votes on the amendments they offered. “Filling the tree” means a piece of legislation has all of its possible amendments filled by the majority leader.
Another former Senate Republican leadership aide said that won’t be possible in the 112th Congress.
“Instrumentally, the new Congress starts with the fact that there’s no longer an announcement but there has to be a conversation about what’s going to happen,” said Eric Ueland, who served as chief of staff to Frist. “That’s the biggest change between the 111th and 112th.
“Sen. Reid had 60 votes or close to 60 votes in the last Congress and didn’t spend a lot of time talking with the Senate Republican leadership about the best way forward.”
With only 53 seats in his caucus, Reid will have to negotiate more with McConnell about the Senate schedule.
This means that Reid will likely have to allow Republicans a vote on repealing healthcare legislation, even though it’s a tough decision for vulnerable incumbents facing reelection in 2012, such as Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
While Senate aides expect Reid and McConnell to work together smoothly, they are less certain about Reid’s relationship with incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Reid is expected to work with Boehner through McConnell and White House officials, as he did during negotiations over the $858 billion tax package that passed during the lame-duck session.
Reid and Boehner met shortly after Election Day, and aides have described their relationship as cordial, even though they haven’t had much interaction before this year.