They are public enemies and private friends, men who refuse to campaign against one another and are masters of the back-room deal.
It’s a partnership between two senators in their fifth terms who share common bonds amid ideological differences. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, 71, a Democrat, and his Republican counterpart, Senator Mitch McConnell, 68, overcame childhood adversities -- Reid was raised poor in Searchlight, Nevada; McConnell had polio.
Each survived close elections -- McConnell won his first term by barely more than 5,000 votes; Reid’s victory margin for a third term was less than 500. Both lack the telegenic looks and oratorical flair suited for a media age. Instead, their rises have been fueled by mastery of the Senate’s workings.
The relationship Reid and McConnell have forged will be tested in a new Congress where the two parties share power. And the success of their partnership in a divided Congress will be pivotal to President Barack Obama’s chances to accomplish his goals and Republicans’ ability to show they can govern.
“They respect each other. They’re both seasoned professionals. They’ve been here a long time. They don’t take the day-to-day operations personally,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, of Reid and McConnell. “Most outsiders,” Alexander added, “would be surprised about how often they talk. Their personal relationship is good.”
In the past, Reid and McConnell have teamed up to allow action on key measures that Senate rules could cause to be stymied. These have included tax-cut and government-spending bills -- which almost always pit them against each other -- and the 2008 bailout of Wall Street, which both supported.
An initial challenge plays out this month as Reid, of Nevada, and McConnell, of Kentucky, negotiate the ground rules for Senate debates. A dispute over the use of the filibuster --a procedural tactic that can block action on legislation and nominations -- doesn’t register much with the public, but is a hot topic within the chamber itself.
“The public face of the Reid-McConnell relationship is one of unremitting hostility, but in reality it’s the responsibility of these two men to prevent the Senate from spinning off into chaos,” said Ross Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who spent months in Reid’s office in 2008 as an observer. “They have very, very heavy institutional responsibilities to get things done, and they do it every day.”
McConnell, in an interview, said “it’s important for us to have a good relationship, and we do. I consider Harry a friend, and I think we trust each other, and I think that’s important for the institution.”
Reid, who wasn’t available for comment for this article, told NPR earlier this month that “I feel comfortable with my relationship with McConnell and the Republican caucus.” He also said he was confident “that we can get some good things done.”
The most recent Reid-McConnell collaborations occurred during the post-election congressional session late last year in which they helped unclog a legislative logjam. McConnell and Republicans reached a deal with Obama on the Republican goal of extending tax cuts for all income groups -- along with an extension of jobless benefits that was a top Democratic priority.
Reid got to schedule votes on approving an arms treaty with Russia and the repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay service members -- measures McConnell and most other Republicans opposed.
“It was a win-win” typical of their relationship, said former Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a Democrat who served as both majority and minority leader.
“Both of them are far more pragmatic than many give them credit for,” said Daschle.
In September 2008, after the financial bailout legislation failed in the House and sent financial markets reeling, it was Reid and McConnell who stepped forward to try to calm the reaction.
They went before news cameras to promise they’d see that the measure survived. The pair then huddled privately and came up with a package -- which included $110 billion in tax breaks and other unrelated provisions some senators wanted, such as help for rural schools and disaster aid, that could pass.
“They got together very quickly,” recalled former Senator Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican who served as a point man for the deal. “I remember the forcefulness with which they both gave the message immediately after the House vote: ‘We are not leaving town. The Congress will stay here until this is done.’”
Reid refrained from directly campaigning against McConnell’s re-election bid in the 2008 elections, though in a year that favored Democrats many other party leaders were working to defeat the Kentuckian.
Similarly, though Reid was a Republican target in the 2010 elections, McConnell didn’t personally aid the unsuccessful bid by Sharron Angle to topple the Nevadan.
Republicans picked up six Senate seats in November, narrowing the Democratic control of the chamber to 53-47.
Looming issues that could tie up the Senate include the administration’s request to boost the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt limit and proposals to overhaul the tax code. McConnell also doesn’t rule out a push to revamp entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, as long as Obama embraces such an effort.
“We ought to look for areas where there is substantial enough agreement, or areas where he’s willing to come over to where we are,” McConnell said of Obama.
More immediately, a group of Democratic senators led by Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado is pushing for changes to the rules for the filibuster, arguing that its routine use has rendered the chamber dysfunctional.
Republicans oppose weakening the tactic, the minority’s most powerful tool. While Reid has expressed support for altering some Senate procedures, he has said he wouldn’t back changing the core of the filibuster -- the requirement that 60 votes are needed to overcome it.
That leaves Reid and McConnell with the task of figuring out adjustments they both can live with and that satisfy majorities of their caucuses.
One likely change, say aides on both sides, might be speeding the process for Senate consideration of presidential nominees. The right of a senator to anonymously place “holds” on nominees, essentially stopping them without debate, could be modified.
Reid and McConnell “are working together on this issue to see if there are any issues we can agree on that would make the Senate work better,” said Alexander.