Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid has called the Republicans’ Tea Party wing “modern-day anarchists.” Senator Rand Paul once joked that President Barack Obama should have traded five Democrats instead of Taliban members in the swap for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.
Yet while the two lawmakers are among the most polarizing figures in the U.S. Senate, they’re quietly forging ties that could bring political bonuses to each of them in 2016. Their cooperation also offers the chance for bipartisan progress on at least some issues facing the chamber.
Starting late last year when they held a series of meetings to discuss Paul’s opposition to Federal Reserve chair nominee Janet Yellen, they have collaborated on legislation for highway funding and restoring felons’ voting rights.
“This one really took me by surprise,” Jim Manley, who was a top Reid aide for six years, said of the relationship. It may work because there’s “not much room for misinterpretation. They’re both pretty clear on what they want to do,” he said.
While their association has raised skepticism among some lawmakers, the alliance offers clear benefits: Having Reid’s ear could help Paul score legislative wins and gain legitimacy with independent voters as he considers a White House run in two years. Reid, who will be a target for Republicans when he seeks a sixth term from Nevada in 2016, so rarely crosses the aisle that he may be aided by pointing to cooperation with Paul.
“They have a mutual interest in burnishing their bipartisan credentials,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California.
The pair, who speak almost every day on the Senate floor as well as by phone and in periodic meetings in Reid’s office, share contrarian and stubborn personalities.
Both shun the clubby Washington social scene -- Reid’s idea of a “good night” is dinner at home with his wife, Manley said -- and they relish criticizing opponents and sometimes antagonizing allies. Paul, 51, demonstrated that last month by outraging fellow Republicans in refusing to “blame” Obama for the crisis in Iraq.
In March 2013, Paul spoke on the Senate floor for more than 12 hours, blocking a vote on confirming John Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency until he won a White House pledge against the use of drones to attack Americans.
A decade earlier, Reid, 74, carried on a more than eight-hour filibuster to protest the way the then-Republican majority was running the chamber -- at one point reading from a book he wrote about his tiny hometown of Searchlight, Nevada, where his father worked as a hard-rock miner.
Reid said in a brief hallway interview at the Capitol last week that, in addition to policy, he and Paul often discuss their families as well as Paul’s work as an ophthalmologist.
“It surprises me that Harry likes anybody,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, jokingly said about the combative majority leader, who once suggested that some Republican opposition to Obama was based on the president’s race. “That’s truly an odd couple.”
Paul said he speaks to Reid on the floor “almost every day” one-on-one. “We have a good relationship,” he said in an interview. “My hope is that if we keep working that way we’ll get to some bipartisan solutions on some things.”
Pitney said Reid’s “blood feud” with Kentucky’s other senator -- Republican leader Mitch McConnell -- could provide another incentive for him to embrace Paul.
“If he wants to tweak Mitch McConnell, one way to do it is to work with the other senator from Kentucky with whom McConnell has a complicated history,” he said.
When Paul ran for the Senate in 2010, McConnell backed his primary opponent, then-Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
It was Reid’s office that reached out to Paul to collaborate on the felons’ voting-rights issue, according to one person familiar with their relationship. That surprised Paul’s people, the person said.
On June 24, Reid came to the Senate floor to laud Paul’s efforts to develop legislation restoring voting rights to nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences. Reid introduced a similar bill more than a decade ago.
“I hope I don’t get him in trouble with the Republican caucus for congratulating him,” Reid said at the time. “This is something that is long overdue,” he said of the measure.
Paul won Reid’s backing last month for his plan to use a temporary tax holiday to encourage U.S. companies to repatriate offshore profits to replenish the highway trust fund. Reid helped float the idea, though it was abandoned amid opposition from Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat.
In December, Reid sang Paul’s praises to reporters after holding a series of meetings with the Republican stemming from Paul’s attempt to block Yellen’s nomination to be Fed chair.
“I met in the last few days with Rand Paul, spent a lot of time with him, and I have grown to really like him,” Reid told reporters. “Even though he has some set political views, he wants to get things done.”
Those talks were prompted by Paul’s vow to block Yellen unless he was allowed a vote on legislation requiring an audit of the Fed. Paul and his father, onetime U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, have long pressed for Fed audits to open monetary policy-making to congressional scrutiny, a move that Democrats say would jeopardize the central bank’s independence.
While Reid says he opposes Paul’s proposal, he made a similar push for more transparency at the Fed in 1987 -- and repeated it as recently as 2010, during a debate with a Tea Party-backed opponent. Paul didn’t get the Fed audit and ultimately skipped Yellen’s confirmation vote on Jan. 6.
Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said he was skeptical that the Reid-Paul friendship was anything other than politically motivated. “If they’re making it a story, that means they’re both going to benefit out of it,” Coburn said in an interview.
“I’m somewhat skeptical that it will produce very much,” former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, said in a telephone interview. “Others have tried and failed in the last three or four years” to translate bipartisan collaboration into legislative success, he said.
With control of the Senate at stake in the November midterm elections, Reid has concentrated his energy on depicting the Republicans as “a party that won’t negotiate,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Republicans, who control 45 seats in the 100-member chamber, need a net gain of six for a Senate takeover. In near-daily speeches on the Senate floor, Reid has accused the opposition party of obstructing legislation in an attempt to gain an advantage in November.
“If he’s able to talk in the press about his effort to find someone who will speak to him in the Republican Party like a Paul, there’s a value to that,” Zelizer said. “He looks like the person who’s trying to make deals.”
Should control of the Senate flip to the Republicans in November, that could test the Reid-Paul alliance.
Early polling shows Reid could be vulnerable in 2016, if he were faced with a strong Republican challenger. In 2010, he defeated Sharron Angle by less than 6 percentage points in a campaign marked by a series of miscues by the Tea Party-backed political novice, including her reluctance to talk to the press.
An Economist/YouGov poll conducted July 12-14 showed that just 22 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Reid, while 51 percent have an unfavorable view.
Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said Reid probably sees benefit in cooperating with Paul partly because Nevada has a strong libertarian presence. Yet “sometimes it’s hard to explain the chemistry” in lawmakers’ relationships, he said.
While it has become somewhat less common, the Senate has a long history of bipartisan alliances.
The late Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Utah Republican Orrin Hatch worked together to create a health-insurance program for children. The late Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, and Democrat Daniel Inouye of Hawaii referred to each other as “brother” and served for years as leaders of the panel that allocates defense spending.
Another Republican contemplating a 2016 White House bid, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, has also reached out to Democrats. Rubio was part of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that crafted a comprehensive revision of the nation’s immigration laws, which the Senate passed last year.
“Many individual members look for opportunities to work with others,” he said of issue-specific bipartisan alliances.
Manley said he has his doubts.
“I assume as Senator Paul tries to figure out what his future is, he’s anxious to show a willingness to work with Democrats on at least a few issues,” he said. “Beyond that, there’s not a lot of love for deal-making in the Republican caucus right now.”