Harry Reid, the soft-spoken but pugilistic Senate majority leader, didn’t wait for White House officials to declare their view of high-stakes talks over the government shutdown and debt.
Standing just outside the West Wing, the 73-year-old Nevadan gave reporters his assessment of a key House Republican offer last week: “Not going to happen.”
That blunt defiance caught administration officials off guard and contrasted with their vague statements later about the GOP’s bid to extend the nation’s borrowing powers for six weeks without fully reopening the government.
But it was in keeping with Reid’s status as President Barack Obama’s top congressional supporter in efforts to force Republicans to drop demands for budget and health care changes in exchange for keeping the government running.
Not surprisingly, Reid served up a much shaper jab over the weekend than any White House official would dare. Congressional Republicans, Reid told reporters, initially hoped to block the president’s health care law, but now they merely want “to divert attention from the fools they’ve made of themselves on Obamacare.”
Obama and others largely sidelined Reid during major bipartisan talks in 2011 and 2012. Reid quietly simmered, associates say, believing Vice President Joe Biden, a former Senate colleague, and other Obama team members were yielding too much to Republicans who would take but not give.
Nowadays, Obama consults closely with Reid on strategy in the budget stalemate.
The former amateur boxer shares almost none of Obama’s smooth oratory and outward charm. But the two appear bound by a conviction that irresponsible, tea party-backed Republicans now dominate the GOP’s congressional members and must be confronted forcefully.
White House aides say Obama talks more frequently with Reid than with any other senator, and they call one another several times a week. The calls have even ended with Obama caught off guard and calling into the phone, “Harry? Harry?”
The majority leader is known for abruptly ending conversations without saying “goodbye.”
Obama has forged an alliance with Reid through shared Democratic ideology and a mutual dependence to get anything accomplished in a legislative environment that’s become defined by partisan gridlock.
They have different styles and are of different generations, but recognize they need each other to make progress on their agenda.
Obama needs Reid to whip up 60 votes in the Senate — the threshold needed to overcome the conservatives’ aggressive use of a filibuster to block votes. Reid needs Obama to promote their ideals as the public face of the nation and the Democrats’ most vital and high-profile decision-maker.
“They have always had as good of a relationship as two men who are not particularly socially outgoing or backslappers can have,” said Rodell Mollineau, a former Reid aide who now runs a Democratic super political action committee. “I don’t think it has changed at all. They’ve always known what each brings to the table and what their strengths are.”
Reid has been fiercely loyal to Obama for the five years of his presidency.
The senator took risks by putting White House-backed gun legislation on the floor, though it ultimately failed, as well as by embracing Obama’s approach on Syria and going to extraordinary lengths to get the president’s health care bill through Congress.
But the two have not always been able to achieve one another’s goals, evidenced by the gun vote and earlier fiscal battles.
In the summer of 2011, as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, struggled to control his most conservative members, the two parties clashed over the debt limit, and Congress barely averted a default.
Jim Manley, a former Reid aide who closely follows Congress and his old boss, said Reid concluded “that the president and his team spent all their time trying to negotiate a deal with the speaker, and the speaker couldn’t deliver.”
Reid was even less happy at the end of 2012, Manley said. Obama’s team cut a “fiscal cliff” deal that shaved back a proposed tax increase on the wealthy, while also failing to delay the across-the-board automatic spending cuts that Democrats opposed.
White House officials felt they won the showdown. The deal would bring in new revenues from the rich, they noted, and avoid a potential tax increase on virtually everyone in the country.
Over time, however, a number of Democratic activists came to Reid’s viewpoint that Obama had eased up unnecessarily just when he had leverage over Republicans that he’d probably never again enjoy. Reid felt the White House was naive in thinking Republicans might return the favor someday, associates say.
This year, Reid got the bigger role he wanted as partisan positions calcified and Congress began marching toward a government shutdown and potential default. Obama seemed ready for tougher stands against Republicans, and the two forged a stronger union than they had managed before.
In a brief exchange Thursday, Reid said he and the White House fully agree on how to pursue the debt and government shutdown issues.
Thursday’s quick dismissal of Boehner’s debt-and-shutdown plan wasn’t the first time Reid has cast aside diplomatic niceties.
Last month he grew furious when Boehner publicly denounced health care subsidies for congressional workers, while privately defending them. Reid’s aides had private emails to prove Boehner’s inconsistencies, and they leaked them just as the partial shutdown began.
It embarrassed the speaker but delighted Democrats eager for a feisty leader in their struggles against the GOP, which often appears more passionate.
Boehner had lied to him, Reid told Esquire magazine, and he gladly would have wrapped more emails around the speaker’s neck “if I’d had more to release.”