Harry Reid’s new game plan: Some bipartisanship
By: Burgess Everett
February 23, 2014 04:24 PM EST
Harry Reid is aiming for a dash of bipartisanship in his election-year game plan.
The Senate majority leader will still push long-shot measures, like paycheck fairness and hiking the minimum wage, designed to appeal to his party’s base. But now he’s considering taking up bills that some Republicans actually support, too, like a manufacturing bill and a prison reform measure.
It’s a marked shift from the widely held belief among members of both parties that Senate Democrats will hold votes this year only on proposals that stress their political message — a strategy in line with the Nevada Democrat’s goal of keeping the Senate in Democratic hands in the 2014 election.
“We have two options, basically; we could jump right into the straight political votes,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide. “Or we can sort of try to stretch out the bipartisan muscles with some lower-profile but important bills.”
The movement is in its early stages and still has significant hurdles to overcome. But after a second vote on unemployment benefits recently failed — leaving no clear-cut political winner — the price of a do-nothing Senate could be too high for Democrats to pay as they try to protect their majority at the polls this fall.
Passing some bills — even if they’re modest ones — could help rehabilitate the image of the entire chamber, which has grown more bitterly partisan since Reid last fall activated the “nuclear option” rules change that eliminated filibusters on most presidential nominees. Now lawmakers of both parties are “trying to sort through what the fallout on the nuclear option is” by testing the waters of cooperation, the Democratic aide said.
Reid is now considering bringing to the floor bills with Republican co-sponsors, including legislation from Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) aimed at producing manufacturing jobs through private and public partnerships, a GOP-backed bill from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) that would improve child care for low-income workers and potentially even high-profile prison sentencing reform sought by liberal Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans.
Officially, Reid has been mum on the specifics of the legislative mix, hinting only, when asked by reporters how he intends to thaw the chamber’s icy climate, that he’s been “working with some Republican senators on a number of issues.”
But the leader has been laying the groundwork for scheduling bills for floor action that have cleared Senate committees. Reid is also working with Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) on moving a glut of lower-level State Department nominees who are now more difficult to confirm since the Democrats’ rule change.
Reid has been holding one-on-one meetings with a handful of nonleadership Senate Republicans like Corker and the Health, Education Labor and Pensions panel’s ranking member, Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), to discuss avenues for bipartisanship, given that there is no threat of an election-year government shutdown or debt crisis.
In those meetings, sources familiar with the conversations said, Reid has compared his deal-cutting past to his current reputation among Republicans as a majority leader vilified for choking off amendments and changing the Senate rules.
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer has also played a key role, initially reaching out to Alexander in the wake of the rules change, which infuriated the deal-seeking Tennessean. Schumer and Alexander met privately several times to discuss moving bills from the HELP Committee, on which Alexander worked with Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to develop the child care legislation as well as the Workforce Investment Act, a job training bill.
Top of mind for Schumer and Alexander is avoiding the type of controversy on the HELP Committee’s bills that tanked promising bipartisan energy efficiency legislation in the Senate last year, one of the starkest examples of the chamber’s gridlock.
“Having legislation that has the buy-in of the Democratic chair and ranking Republican should make it a lot easier to come to compromise on fending off unrelated and unproductive amendments, while still allowing the minority to have input and try to shape the legislation,” Schumer said of the talks.
Senate Democrats hope that by concentrating on less controversial bills they will be able to reach deals with Republicans on moving nominees and holding floor votes on amendments. Ever since Reid invoked the nuclear option, Republicans have retaliated by slowing down much of the Senate’s business and complaining that Reid won’t allow amendments to major pieces of legislation on the floor.
Along with the bipartisan push, Democrats will still pursue bills focused on hiking the minimum wage, extending unemployment insurance and securing equal paychecks for men and women. Election-year politics must remain in the mix to excite a party base that wants quick movement on poll-tested legislation.
The strategy of mixing bipartisanship with political votes is still risky. Several top Republican aides expressed unfamiliarity with movement on the handful of lower-profile bills, and they suggested the shift is a calculated one motivated by Obamacare’s lingering woes and a Congressional Budget Office report that predicted raising the minimum wage would lift many Americans out of poverty but also result in job losses.
“They are sort of reeling at the moment,” said one senior Republican aide. “All of a sudden, minimum wage isn’t the clean hit they were hoping for.”
Another GOP aide added: “The Democrats’ election year attempt to change the topic away from Obamacare didn’t start well and likely won’t end well as Americans continue to experience the law’s consequences.”
Republicans are also arguing that if Democrats are actually interested in bipartisan cooperation, they should look at approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, repeal of the medical device tax and fast-tracking new trade agreements, which Reid opposes.
Furthermore, Democrats aren’t ruling out Republican engagement on raising the minimum wage, though they are bearish that the bill will ultimately clear the Senate. But Republicans could vote to at least open debate on the bill to raise the federal wage floor to $10.10 an hour, which would allow GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Rob Portman of Ohio to offer alternatives to the legislation.
Both senators are developing business-friendly substitutes to the Democrats’ $10.10 bill, and the only way they can get votes on their ideas is if the Senate breaks an initial filibuster. Republicans’ support for opening debate on the minimum wage would also help insulate the GOP politically from blame if the bill stalls — a strategy similar to their tactics on unemployment benefits.