McConnell-Reid Role Reversal to Test Strained Relations

Mitch McConnell has said Harry Reid may be remembered as the worst majority leader in U.S. Senate history. Now that he’s about to take Reid’s job, McConnell insists there’s no bad blood between the two rivals.

When Republicans take over Senate control from the Democrats in January, each party’s top player will remain the same, leaving old grudges to deepen as Reid and McConnell swap tactical playbooks.

“We’ve had some spirited debates on the floor of the Senate about the way the place is being run, but we don’t have an acrimonious relationship personally,” McConnell of Kentucky, poised to become majority leader, said on Nov. 5.

While McConnell has spoken of the need for compromise in the new Congress, the return of the leadership in both parties doesn’t bode well for the chances of lawmakers breaking the impasse that has stalled legislation for the last four years.

No one in either party has come forward to challenge McConnell or Reid for the job of party leader, and aides say there are unlikely to be major changes among their top lieutenants.

Republicans gained at least seven Senate seats in the Nov. 43 election, more than enough for a majority in the 100-member chamber now controlled by Democrats 55-45. Reid, of Nevada, and McConnell are among congressional leaders attending a White House lunch meeting with President Barack Obama today before Congress returns to Washington on Nov. 12.

Policy Sparring

Reid and McConnell, each in his current position since January 2007, are skilled inside players with little public charisma who share a deep understanding of the Senate’s functioning and a transactional approach to legislating.

The pair regularly spar over policy and the functioning of the Senate. McConnell, 72, has sharply criticized Reid, 74, for changing Senate rules last year to strip the minority party of the power to block almost all presidential nominees.

McConnell and Reid have clashed over spending priorities, efforts to curb carbon emissions, extra Internal Revenue Service scrutiny of groups advocating for limited government that are seeking tax exemptions, and proposed tighter gun restrictions after the mass killing in Newtown, Connecticut.

Some disputes were acrimonious enough that others had to step in to resolve them.

McConnell worked with Vice President Joe Biden to close a 2012 agreement that preserved most of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts. Last year, amid a showdown over stalled presidential nominees, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona was credited with helping reach a deal that temporarily forestalled the change in Senate rules.

Bank-Rescue Plan

On other matters, Reid and McConnell’s ability to work together led to legislative breakthroughs, including a Wall Street bailout during the 2008 financial crisis.

After the September 2008 failure of a bank-rescue plan in the House sent financial markets into a tailspin, McConnell and Reid went on television to promise they would ensure passage. They came up with a package of $110 billion in tax breaks and other items, including disaster aid, to help win support.

In 2010, during a post-election congressional session, McConnell helped reach a deal with Obama -- which Reid agreed not to block -- that extended the Bush-era tax cuts for all income levels as part of an extension of jobless benefits the administration wanted.

A bargain that led to a 2011 debt-limit increase was crafted by both, with benefits to each party: It shielded Republicans from blame for raising the borrowing cap and included wording on spending limits that Democrats wanted.

Debt-Limit Increases

Congress voted that year to raise the federal debt ceiling enough to fund government borrowing until 2013 while cutting $2.4 trillion in spending over a decade.

The legislation included an approach devised by McConnell that allowed Congress to pass three debt-limit increases without Republicans having to directly support them. The measure made $917 billion in discretionary spending cuts over 10 years and included an agreement on overall spending levels for two years, something Reid sought to help ease tension over appropriations.

Last year, the two lawmakers negotiated an end to the 16-day partial government shutdown.

McConnell hasn’t said whether he will seek to revive the 60-vote threshold to confirm most presidential nominees, which Democrats dropped in November 2013 for all nominees except those to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Four months earlier, McConnell said that if Reid went through with changing the rule, he would “be remembered as the worst leader of the Senate ever.”

‘Work Together’

McConnell has pledged to bring back the days when amendments were routinely allowed on legislation, committees were more involved in crafting bills, and spending measures were considered on an individual basis.

Reid issued a statement Nov. 4 congratulating McConnell on becoming majority leader and saying the message from voters “is clear: they want us to work together.”

Two days later, Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said in an e-mail that McConnell was already allowing his agenda to be set by Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a Tea Party favorite. Jentleson said the word “compromise” was “conspicuously absent” from McConnell’s vision for the next Congress.

Senators John Cornyn of Texas, John Thune of South Dakota and John Barrasso of Wyoming are McConnell’s top lieutenants, while Senators Richard Durbin of Illinois, Charles Schumer of New York and Patty Murray of Washington are Reid’s. All plan to stay in their current roles.

Campaign Committees

Meanwhile, jockeying has already begun to lead the 2016 campaign committees. Senators Dean Heller of Nevada and Roger Wicker of Mississippi are campaigning to lead the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware is considering a bid to head the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

McConnell told reporters this week that Reid also called to congratulate him on winning a sixth Senate term, even though Reid supported his opponent, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.

“He called actually to compliment me on what a skillful campaign I ran,” the Republican said. “He obviously paid very close attention to it.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE