By Alexander Bolton - 10/07/13 10:00 AM EDT
President Obama has handed over the reins of leadership on government funding and the debt limit to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
He has taken the initiative from Obama, who played the principal role in the 2011 debt-limit talks and New Year’s fiscal cliff deal. Some Democrats on Capitol Hill are relieved by the switch.
The majority leader has brought a more pugnacious style to the debate, bashing House conservatives as “anarchists” and mocking the “Banana Republican mindset.” This is a welcome change for Democrats who thought Obama was too accommodating to Republicans during previous crises.
Simply put, they believe less is more when it comes to Obama’s involvement in negotiations with the GOP.
Liberal Democrats do not fully trust Obama, in part because of his more diplomatic style. Their disquiet was deepened by his past tax deals with Republicans and repeated offers to trim Social Security and Medicare costs.
Obama alarmed some in the Senate Democratic caucus last week when he convened congressional leaders at the White House to discuss the government shutdown and looming debt-limit debate.
They feared he might take the lead in the talks and make concessions to get past the current fiscal crisis.
“There’s some concern being expressed now that Obama is calling the leaders to the White House that this might be premature,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, a senior Democrat from Iowa. “What’s he going to say? What’s he going to do?
“I hope he just says, ‘Harry’s the leader. We’re following Sen. Reid,’” he added.
Reid praised the president after the Wednesday meeting, reassuring colleagues.
“The president of the United States was very, very strong, strong, strong,” he said.
Democratic aides say Obama has served as a crucial backstop by refusing to negotiate over the debt limit and quickly issuing veto threats against House measures to defund, delay or otherwise erode the Affordable Care Act.
“There’s no question, Reid is now the quarterback,” said a Senate Democratic aide.
That became clear when Reid persuaded Obama last month to abandon an effort to set up a bipartisan meeting of congressional leaders before government funding expired.
Reid is pursuing a high-stakes strategy in the hope that by staring down Tea Party conservatives now, he will dissuade them from demanding major concessions in exchange for passing future bills essential to the smooth functioning of government.
His biggest asset has been the solid unity of the Democratic caucus, liberals and centrists alike, despite personal preferences for higher spending levels and changing key elements of the Affordable Care Act.
Nine months ago, Reid failed to hold back the administration as it sought a last minute deal to keep all of the Bush-era tax rates from expiring.
Reid wanted Democrats to take a harder line on the so-called fiscal cliff, say Democratic senators and staff. He was willing to let the tax rates expire to give Democrats more leverage.
Instead, Obama dispatched Vice President Biden to meet with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). The resulting deal made most of the Bush tax rates permanent and exempted inheritances under $5 million from taxation.
Many liberals were dismayed.
Many Democrats wish they could take back the deal as it failed to address the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. Now, there is little prospect Republicans will give any more ground on raising taxes.
“Sequestration is stupidity on steroids,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said.
Republicans would prefer to see Obama or Biden at the table instead of Reid.
“Reid has put himself in charge of this whole thing and Obama is a non-player,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said.
Hatch complained Reid “doesn’t want to do anything.”
On “Fox News Sunday,” Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) accused Reid of being “scared” of bipartisan talks aimed at striking a deal.
A major difference between now and the 112th Congress is Obama, having won reelection, no longer has a personal electoral stake in the negotiations. Instead, preserving their Senate majority is the Democrats’ highest political priority.
Democrats feel confident that public opinion is on their side. They hope the refusal of Tea Party House conservatives to accept a “clean” bill to reopen the government will hurt Republican chances of taking control of the upper chamber after 2014.
Privately, some Republican senators agree that the GOP is playing its hand poorly.
“We have all the advantages and we’re squandering them,” said a Republican senator, who requested anonymity to speak frankly.
Reid’s tough tone has sometimes hurt his cause, however. He stumbled at a press conference last week after CNN’s Dana Bash pressed him about a GOP bill funding the National Institutes of Health, but leaving other agencies shuttered.
“If you can help one child who has cancer, why wouldn’t you do it?” she asked.
“Why would we want to do that?” Reid scoffed, noting there are over 1,000 people furloughed at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada who have “a few problems of their own.”
He subsequently clarified his comments, after the GOP had seized on them.
Reid, a Senate institutionalist, has fumed over the outsized role that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a freshman senator who has yet to serve 10 months in the upper chamber, has had in the debate.
“Sen. Cruz is now joint speaker,” he said. “He lectures the House on occasion, as he does people over here.”
Reid disputes GOP assertions that he has refused to compromise.
“We had negotiated our hearts out,” Reid said Friday, referring to a deal he struck privately with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in July to pass a clean stopgap bill at funding levels set by the House GOP.
Senate Democratic sources say Reid agreed at a meeting in Boehner’s office on July 17 to accept a stopgap set at $986.3 billion. In return, they say, Boehner promised to keep it free of legislation defunding ObamaCare.
Reid knew he would have a tough job selling liberals on a funding level $72 billion lower than what labor unions and progressive groups wanted.
When Congress reconvened after the August recess, House conservatives balked at their leadership’s plan to merely require the Senate to vote on defunding ObamaCare before considering legislation to keep the government open.
House Republican leaders in response crafted a more aggressive bill that included language to defund Obama-Care in the spending stopgap.
Reid and Boehner met on Sept. 12 to discuss a plan for avoiding the looming government shutdown.
Reid told Boehner of a Senate procedural move that could be used to strip the defund-ObamaCare language without relying on Republican votes, and send back a clean resolution funded at the House GOP level.
Boehner jumped on the plan, according to Senate Democratic sources.
The Speaker on ABC’s “This Week” did not dispute that, and suggested his GOP members wanted to go in another direction.
When the Senate passed the clean stopgap without language defunding Obama-Care, Boehner, under pressure from Tea Party conservatives, rejected it.
Reid made little effort to hide his frustration.
“[We] can’t perform the most basic functions of government because he doesn’t have the courage to stand up to that small band of anarchists,” Reid told reporters.