Government shutdown: Harry Reid spearheads Democratic strategy
By: Manu Raju and Burgess Everett
September 29, 2013 08:52 PM EDT
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been the most ardent proponent of President Barack Obama taking a hard line with House Republicans in the latest fiscal crisis engulfing Washington.
And so far, Reid is getting his way.
When the president considered sitting down with the four congressional leaders in the White House ahead of the deadline to avert a government shutdown, Reid privately urged Obama to call off the meeting, according to several people familiar with the situation. Reid believed that it would amount to nothing more than a photo-op that would give the false impression that a serious negotiation was occurring, even warning he wouldn’t attend such a session. Obama scrapped it.
As Washington barrels forward to the first government shutdown in 17 years on Tuesday, the wily Reid has taken the lead role in pushing a hardball Democratic legislative strategy that can be summed up like this: Make the Republicans cave.
“He’s been the rock … and he’s had our whole caucus behind him,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a close Reid ally who spoke with the majority leader nine times on Saturday afternoon. “Because if we negotiate on a short-term [government funding bill], what are [Republicans] going to do on a long-term bill? What are they going to do on the debt ceiling?”
So far in this fight, the party’s leadership, senior White House officials and the president have been on the same page. They will not let Republicans gut or delay Obamacare — or concede an inch to the GOP despite the ramifications of a shutdown. For now, even Republicans privately concede House Republicans could suffer much of the political backlash for a looming shutdown.
But Reid’s no-compromise stance is not without its own risks. With Washington held in such low regard, politicians of all stripes are certain to incur fury from constituents once government services are suspended, parks are closed and hundreds of thousands of federal workers are furloughed. And Reid now is protecting a fragile Democratic Senate majority, with Republicans just six seats away from returning to power — so any misstep by the Nevada Democrat could hurt vulnerable senators in red states.
A shutdown appears a near certainty at this point. After the Senate stripped out language to defund Obamacare in a bill to keep the government running until mid-November, the House in a rare Saturday session added in a yearlong delay of major portions of the health care law and a repeal of the law’s 2.3 percent tax on medical-device makers. On Monday afternoon, Reid will reconvene the Senate and quickly to move kill the House’s anti-Obamacare provisions on the votes of just Democratic senators.
At that point, the ball will be back in Speaker John Boehner’s court: Pass a $986-billion continuing resolution that would continue to fund Obamacare, or send back another plan taking aim at the health law that Republicans collectively hate. If they choose the latter, Democrats plan to vote it down in the Senate. And if the House refuses to pass a clean stopgap measure, a partial government shutdown would occur for the first time since the Clinton era.
Reid said in an interview Friday there was little point for Obama to engage directly in the fiscal fights. “Not on the debt ceiling and not on the CR,” he told POLITICO. “Maybe on something else — but not these two. We have to fund the government and pay our bills.”
Reid’s strategy boils down to a few factors: If Democrats give even a few small concessions on a short-term stopgap funding measure, Republicans will demand even bigger concessions to avoid a debt default in mid-October. Since Republicans have been engulfed in an intraparty war over how far to take a shutdown threat, Reid and his top lieutenants are convinced that the political backlash from a shutdown would be devastating to the GOP, potentially costing them their majority in the House.
Republicans on Sunday furiously sought to change that narrative and put the blame squarely on Reid. About 20 House members rallied in front of the Senate steps on Sunday afternoon, accusing Reid of angling for a government shutdown to hurt Republicans politically. They called on the Senate to come back into session Sunday and negotiate with House Republicans.
“The fact that the senators aren’t here and Harry Reid is off somewhere is all the evidence that you need to know that they want to shut down the government,” said Rep. Tim Griffin of Arkansas. “I personally believe that Sen. Reid and the president — for political purposes — want to shut down the government.”
Whether the party can stick together when the political heat intensifies remains to be seen given that Democrats haven’t always been unified in fiscal fights during Obama’s time in office.
Reid and top Democrats were infuriated by the White House’s handling of the fiscal cliff fight that led to a New Year’s Eve 2012 deal between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In late 2010, when the White House cut a deal with Senate Republicans to extend Bush-era tax cuts for two years, Democrats were also furious. And in 2011, Democrats feared Obama would cut a grand-bargain deal with Boehner that would slash too deeply into entitlement programs they have vowed to protect.
Now, the White House and Reid both plan to furiously make the argument that the burden will be squarely on Boehner to pass a temporary stopgap measure to keep the government funded — or risk the wrath from voters tired of political brinksmanship.
And Democrats say they will make sure neither they — nor the White House — will bend. Eventually, they believe, Boehner will be forced to acquiesce to Democratic demands to keep the government funded without any anti-Obamacare provisions.
“I think Harry Reid and the Democratic Senate Caucus have been the group that has been the strongest,” Schumer told POLITICO Sunday.
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.