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Boehner and Reid pushed together by budget impasse

The Republican House speaker and Democratic Senate majority leader are bringing their divergent political views to the table as they try to avoid a government shutdown. Both known as dealmakers, an agreement is considered possible.

March 11, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • Republican House speaker John Boehner and Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid will try to avoid a government shutdown.
Republican House speaker John Boehner and Democratic Senate majority… (Bloomberg, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — House Speaker John A. Boehner is well known as one of 12 children of an Ohio tavern owner, a boy who mopped up after closing time and now cries easily at the mention of his family's hard-working past and the country that helped him rise.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid mined for gold with an alcoholic father in the unforgiving Nevada desert, where his mother took in laundry from the town brothels to help pay the bills.

But these up-by-their-bootstraps stories led the two men in different directions: Boehner concluded that government does best by staying out of the way, and Reid came away believing that government can help solve many ills.

Now they are bringing those deeply divergent views to one of the toughest congressional negotiations ever attempted in Washington: a budget deal that stands to alter the scope of the federal government for years to come.

Behind closed doors and in clipped phone calls, the House Republican leader and the Senate Democratic leader are also sizing up one another, trying to determine who will blink, and whether the other can be trusted as they race against time and partisanship to avert a government shutdown.

Reid and Boehner, with Vice President Joe Biden representing the administration, have one week before a stopgap funding measure expires and the government loses its funding altogether. Even if another short-term fix is approved before then, they still must broker a deal lasting the rest of the fiscal year.

Two votes in the Senate this week reset the table, showing how both sides must give. The Democratic majority in the Senate unanimously rejected a plan previously passed by House Republicans to cut more than $60 billion from current-year spending. Then, 10 Democrats along with one liberal independent joined the Republican minority in dumping a Democratic proposal to limit the cuts to $6.5 billion.

It's partly because both Reid and Boehner are known as dealmakers that an agreement is considered possible. Although their relationship is relatively untested, both have much to gain politically by keeping the government running. If they do, they may well set a new tone in the hostile, hyper-partisan environment of Congress, which still faces votes on the 2012 budget and on raising the ceiling on the nearly $14.3-trillion national debt.

Their ability to deliver votes from their often renegade caucuses will be crucial. Neither aligns with the extremists in their parties, but both know that any notion of compromise can become quickly trampled by warring factions inside and outside Washington.

As a new speaker, Boehner faces the unusually difficult task of leading a unified freshman class that is as inexperienced as it is unruly — a power center that he may be unwilling or unable to control.

Fueled by the "tea party" voters who sent them to Washington, the House conservative bloc has shown little interest in retreating from the House-passed package of budget cuts, which slashes services in every state in the largest one-time reduction in generations.

Reid's Democrats seem to be rallying around the idea of reducing many of the GOP cuts in popular domestic programs by broadening the negotiations to include taxes, business subsidies and entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. But that ratchets up the political stakes, and may make a quick deal even more difficult.

Aides and others familiar with the Reid-Boehner relationship call it "cordial" — often Washington parlance for an incendiary alignment that has yet to explode. Even their personal styles clash. Boehner unapologetically drinks and smokes and backslaps his way around the golf course; Reid, a teetotaling Mormon, has a penchant for yoga and movies.

Yet they share common ground and are not strangers. The two conferred from time to time over the four-year period when Democrats controlled Congress and Boehner was the minority leader to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

In their daily duties, they share a preference for the undisciplined cadence of small-"d" democracy, avoiding the iron-fisted rule of predecessors and giving their ranks freedom to vent. Their resumes both have examples of compromises brokered. Boehner helped pass the Wall Street bailout — the Troubled Asset Relief Program. And Reid carried President Obama's healthcare overhaul to law.

Reid recently made the long walk from his suite on the Senate side of the Capitol to the new speaker's rooms near the House chamber as the budget battle began. They are getting to know one another better.

Both have acknowledged that forces outside of Congress and beyond the scope of the budget issue will help determine the outcome.

As Boehner said recently, "It's not going to be easy — and I think I understand that, and Sen. Reid understands that."

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