Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell don’t get along. That’s a major hurdle to a fiscal deal.

October 14, 2013

Here's one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington: The two men tasked with finding a solution to the government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling deadline over the next few days don't like each other all that much.


In this photo taken July 11, 2012, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, left, a Democrat, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a Republican, participate in an award ceremony at the U.S. Capitol.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) may well hold the fiscal future of the country in their hands since everyone involved in the shutdown/debt-ceiling talks now acknowledges that the other attempts to craft a solution -- including by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and the White House -- have fallen apart. But, for the same reason we were always skeptical that Boehner and President Obama would find a way to a deal -- they don't trust one another and have little to no relationship -- there's reason to be skeptical about whether Reid and McConnell can negotiate a compromise.

Here's why. McConnell is up for reelection in 2014, a race that is expected to be close and is already contentious.  And, for McConnell and Reid, it has gotten personal. After the Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC for which Reid has helped raise money, began advertising against McConnell over the summer, the Kentucky senator confronted his Nevada colleague on the Senate floor -- telling him, “I see your super PAC is up in Kentucky. Come on down; I hope you spend it all down there," according to Politico's Manu Raju and John Bresnahan. Reid denied any involvement.

The back and forth highlights a delicate dance between the leaders of the two parties in the Senate when it comes to their reelection bids. The tradition had long been that the Senate's two leaders would not actively campaign against each other in their respective home states; that ended in 2004 to much fanfare, when Senate GOP Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) actively campaigned against Democratic leader Tom Daschle (S.D.). (The Senate, like baseball, is governed by all sorts of unspoken rules that each side tends to define differently.)

What that incident means is that McConnell will always be suspicious of Reid's motives any time they work together. (That is not to say Reid is culpable for directing an attack against McConnell, but rather that because the Kentucky senator thinks Reid has already crossed the line, he will see everything that happens through a political -- and skeptical -- lens.)

Reid has plenty of reason to be leery of McConnell as well -- most notably a fiery exchange in the run-up to the possible use of the "nuclear option" on confirming executive branch nominees. McConnell said that if Reid exercised that option he would be "remembered as the worst leader here ever." McConnell's campaign team also tweeted a picture showing a gravestone with the words "Harry Reid...Killed the Senate" on it.

Politics -- particularly when the stakes are this high -- is a personal business, and trust is at the core of any deal.  It's why McConnell and Vice President Biden were able to negotiate a fiscal cliff deal when no one else could. The two men aren't even close to ideological allies, but they trusted each other at some basic level. That's what matters. And that's what Reid and McConnell seem to lack. Circumstances in politics are always changing, and neither McConnell nor Reid could have lasted this long in politics without being willing and able to adjust when necessary.

But a whole lot -- including, if economists are to be believed, the fiscal future of the country -- rides on the two men finding a way to trust each other long enough to find common ground.

Fixbits: 

Reid and McConnell spoke by phone Sunday afternoon, but there's still no deal.

Spending caps are a key sticking point in the talks for Senate Republicans.

McConnell officially endorsed the plan offered by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that Senate Democrats rejected.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said House Republicans don't like the Collins plan either.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) easily won the presidential straw poll at the Values Voter Summit.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) fears lawmakers are "ruining" the House and Senate.

Ron Paul endorsed Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) for governor.

Citing the government shutdown and standoff over the debt ceiling as the reason that spurred him to run for Congress, Omaha City Councilman Pete Festersen (D) will run against Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), giving the Republican a serious challenger.

Sarah Palin stumped for underdog New Jersey Senate candidate Steve Lonegan (R).

Must-reads:

"Fearing a lost governor’s race, Virginia Republicans confront party divide" -- Paul Schwartzman, Washington Post

"The shutdown has shown: What’s good for Ted Cruz is not good for the Republican Party" -- Chris Cillizza, Washington Post

"Mike Lee Is Alfred to Ted Cruz's Batman" -- Ben Terris, Washington Post

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Niraj Chokshi · October 13, 2013