By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 11, 2007
Since the new Congress convened, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have emerged as the Senate's odd couple, the even-tempered McConnell hurling parliamentary brickbats at the quirky Reid with an even smile and a "Who, me?" shrug.
But though McConnell may be winning procedural battles -- on ethics legislation and a minimum-wage increase and by stopping a high-profile Iraq debate -- Reid, at least this past week, may have played the stronger hand on the war issue, on which public opinion is clearly on his side.
The drama started Monday evening, when McConnell rallied GOP senators to block from the Senate floor a nonbinding resolution opposing President Bush's plan to increase troops in Iraq. But since then, the headlines have been withering, blaming Republicans for sidetracking the debate. Rank-and-file Republican senators are grumbling and threatening to break with McConnell, as the much ballyhooed war debate has morphed into a procedural spat with the GOP playing defense.
"I'm very surprised how they handled this," Reid said of McConnell and his Republican leadership team. "It was so obvious. I just think they miscalculated. And it keeps getting worse."
Julian E. Zelizer, a congressional expert at Boston University, said the Republicans may be "on top" in the short term, but they must be careful how their tactics play with the public in the long term. "They can't look like obstructionists, especially on this war resolution," he said. "This is wartime lawmaking, not peacetime lawmaking."
McConnell asserts that the conflict is less about political tactics than about ensuring "fair treatment" for the Senate GOP, which is barely in the minority.
"This is not about keeping score," the Republican leader told reporters on Thursday, his monotone voice bristling slightly. "This is about an extraordinarily important issue. The American people are not happy with the current status of the Iraq war. Republican senators are not happy about it."
Looking back, did he have any regrets?
"The only thing we could have done differently would have been to capitulate," McConnell shot back. "That didn't happen Monday and won't happen in the future."
Reid and McConnell began the year vowing to cooperate, but so far they have clashed over practically every important issue to come before the Senate. Democrats control the Senate by the slimmest majority, 51 to 49, presenting formidable challenges to both party leaders and suggesting that procedural one-upmanship could become a permanent part of the narrative. "That's just how you have to do things here," Reid said, expressing the relatively sanguine view that he and McConnell are forced by circumstances to take.
As a tactician, McConnell, 64, a four-term veteran, has shown in recent weeks that he is one tough competitor. Both he and Reid, 67, are former party whips, jobs that require a deep knowledge of Senate rules and an instinctive feel for political and ideological idiosyncrasies. They both also sit on the Appropriations Committee, the chief spigot for federal spending, where Republicans and Democrats traditionally have supported each other's pet programs.
The pair share low-key temperaments, although Reid has the more colorful personality. The son of a Nevada miner, Reid became a successful Las Vegas trial lawyer before entering politics, and he views himself as an outsider among the Washington elite. McConnell, who is married to Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, is a staunch conservative who is regarded as one of President Bush's closest allies in Congress. He has vowed to do whatever he can to prevent Congress from passing a resolution criticizing Bush's war policies.
In an editorial titled "A Minority to be Reckoned With," the conservative magazine National Review strongly praised the GOP leader. "Under Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republicans have quickly gotten the hang of serving in a minority that can successfully frustrate Harry Reid's partisan maneuvering on the war in Iraq," the editorial declared.
The war debate now shifts to the House, where Democratic leaders will offer their own formal protest next week against Bush's plan to deploy an additional 21,500 combat troops in Iraq. In the meantime, the Senate battle is expected to remain suspended.
Reid and the Democrats had been prepared for a week-long debate on a nonbinding bipartisan resolution criticizing Bush's troop buildup and calling for a political solution to the war, but it ran into a procedural roadblock Monday evening after McConnell complained that the Democrats were denying Republicans a vote on alternative resolutions supportive of the war effort.
McConnell lined up all but two Republicans -- Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Norm Coleman (Minn.) -- to vote in favor of blocking the debate until Reid agrees to GOP terms. But that Republican alliance quickly frayed. On Wednesday night, five Republicans who had voted with McConnell joined Collins and Coleman in signing a letter to the Senate Democratic and Republican leaders, vowing to "explore all our options" to ensure that the bipartisan nonbinding resolution reaches the floor.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a moderate Maine Republican, fumed that she had been assured by GOP leaders that the Monday setback would be temporary. Her support for the McConnell position, she said, "was always predicated on the expectation that we would move forward," adding: "No one ever entertained the possibility that it would be a dead end."
Snowe called McConnell and Reid's inability to come to terms "inexcusable," adding that "the House of Representatives is preparing to debate and our Senate is deadlocked. It sort of marginalizes the U.S. Senate as an institution. We can't even determine how to go forward procedurally with a nonbinding resolution."
McConnell and Reid have clashed on other big issues. Early in January, McConnell nearly brought down a major ethics and lobbying bill over GOP demands for a vote on granting the president virtual line-item veto authority. Later, he and other Republicans forced Democrats to accept tax breaks for small businesses as a condition for passing the minimum-wage bill.
But with polls showing that Americans overwhelmingly oppose the war in Iraq and believe that it was a mistake for Bush to commit U.S. troops, the president's decision to boost troop levels and seek billions of dollars more in spending clearly constitutes the most important issue facing Congress this year.
Every Monday, Reid and McConnell meet one on one, and last Monday at 3 p.m., the huddle took place in McConnell's office. The two leaders quickly established that neither side was budging on the procedural dispute surrounding the war resolutions, and a showdown vote was set for 5:30 p.m.
The next morning, newspaper headlines around the country blared that Republicans were to blame for the gridlock, and Democrats pummeled GOP lawmakers for allowing partisan considerations to get in the way of a vital debate.
By week's end, Republicans were breaking ranks.
On the floor of the Senate and before television cameras, McConnell maintained a reassuring and conciliatory air. Almost apologetically, he explained that the impasse over the Iraq war resolution was a minor bump in the road and would surely be worked out. He expressed faith in his relationship with Reid, and looked genuinely taken aback by Democratic charges of obstructionism and nefarious intent.
Reid, for his part, also seemed on shaky ground in the immediate aftermath, appearing to protect Democrats from political controversy at the expense of a war debate. The letter from the seven Republicans vowing to do whatever it takes to get the debate back on track helped to reverse this impression by suggesting buyer's remorse on the Republican side.
"Everything Harry Reid has done this week, and I know some of you had some tough questions, has been vindicated by that letter," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.
But it did not appear to faze McConnell. "I think 40 to 42 of our members are comfortable with where we are," he said. "They all understand that we'll get back to this debate and, at whatever point we get back to this debate, the [funding] amendment or other amendments will be in the mix."