The rift traces to 2010, when Reid thought McConnell wasn’t upfront about how aggressively he would try to help defeat the Democrat in his tough reelection race in Nevada. McConnell, now dealing with a difficult campaign of his own in Kentucky, is incensed that Reid appears to be more than returning the favor. In recent years, McConnell has gone around Reid to cut deals with Vice President Biden.
On the Senate floor, their rhetoric has grown so heated that their colleagues recently held the equivalent of an intervention. Off the floor, their relationship has been marked by personal slights.
On Sunday, the two leaders remained far apart. A fleeting afternoon phone call was the only sign of negotiation, although it did prompt Reid to voice a touch of hope. “I’m optimistic about the prospect for a positive conclusion,” he said just before 5 p.m. as he closed up the Senate chamber and left the Capitol.
Still, there was no sign of progress in their standoff over federal agency budgets, which have emerged as the key hurdle in their talks, and their staff members spent the day questioning whether the other side was acting in good faith.
Some longtime friends fear that Reid and McConnell’s relationship has become so frayed that a deal might not materialize before Thursday, when the Treasury runs out of borrowing authority, setting up a potential default by the end of the month.
“There appears to be forces at work here that might cause us to get wrapped around the wheel,” said former senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who retired in January 2011 after serving 18 years with both men.
Others suggest that the stakes are so high that two men with a combined 56 years of Senate experience will not allow bad blood to get in the way of a deal.
“They were hurt by one another, and they have issues that they are carrying, but I know them well enough to believe that that would take a back burner to the moment in history that they find themselves at,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a 21-year veteran of the Senate.
The deep animosity between Reid, 73, and McConnell, 71, went public this summer, when they clashed over Democratic efforts to amend filibuster rules. McConnell called Reid “the worst leader in the Senate ever,” and Reid accused McConnell of a “breach of faith” over an earlier agreement designed to smooth the confirmation process for judicial and executive branch nominees.
Their daily clashes became so heated that rank-and-file senators requested a rare bipartisan caucus, which led to a highly unusual marathon meeting of almost all 100 senators in the Old Senate Chamber and a bipartisan pact that averted what Reid had threatened: a unilateral, party-line vote to change the filibuster rules.