All Eyes on the Senate: Can Two Veterans Deliver a Debt Deal?

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Bill Clark / Roll Call

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are not chatty men by nature. Notoriously monosyllabic, either man could probably compete for a world record in shortest average phone conversation. But that doesn’t mean they’re not talking now. Although not fast friends, Reid and McConnell have one of the most functional professional relationships in a Congress that’s currently in the news for remarkable dysfunction.

Since the beginning of the debt ceiling debate, the two senior legislators have stepped up the frequency of their exchanges, reaching out three to five times a day by phone or in person on the Senate floor. This line of communication will be key if the impasse over spending cuts and federal borrowing authority is to be resolved by Tuesday’s deadline. With House Speaker John Boehner’s bill defeated in the Senate, it is now up to Reid and McConnell to craft a compromise that can rise from the partisan wreckage that has led the nation to the brink of default.

If only listening to their public speeches, one might think the two were mortal enemies.

“Rather than working the last few days toward a solution to this crisis the way the Republican majority in the House has, the Democratic majority here in the Senate has been wasting precious time rounding up no votes to keep this crisis alive,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Friday morning.

“We’re willing to work with him and his staff as we have to try to come up with a solution,” Reid shot back. “I’m here indicating to the world that I spent my whole adult life trying to compromise and build a consensus.”

But behind the scenes, they get along well and, in fact, share quite a lot in common. Both men came to the Senate as young men in humble circumstances. McConnell served as an intern for Kentucky Republican John Sherman Cooper, a favorite across-the-aisle partner of then President John F. Kennedy. Reid worked part-time as a Capitol Hill police officer while earning his law degree at George Washington University. They both became lawyers and went on to spend most of their adult lives in politics.

McConnell, now 69, came to the Senate in 1985, two years before Reid, now 71, arrived from Nevada. They rose through the ranks of their respective parties, but maintained a mutual respect for each other over the years. In late 2007, McConnell invited Reid to speak about bipartisanship at the McConnell Center for Leadership, Scholarship and Service at the University of Louisville. “In these divisive times, it is quite unusual to have Senate majority and minority leaders appear together,” Gary Gregg, the center’s director, said at the time.

Of course, Reid and McConnell know how to play the game. They’re experts in Senate arcana — obscure rules they’ve tried to exploit to shape the schedule of this weekend’s debt ceiling showdown. “At the end of the day they are both pragmatists,” says Adam Jentleson, a Reid spokesman. “Both feel very strong about the institution and the importance of its rules and traditions.” And it’s that outlook that has positioned them for their critical roles in the waning days of debt-ceiling negotiations.

The product of weeks of quiet talks, the deficit reduction bills Reid and McConnell are crafting are not so far apart in substance. They have more or less agreed on roughly $1 trillion in discretionary spending cuts over the next decade, including $36 billion from the 2012 budget. They have also agreed to call for the formation of a commission that would look for an additional $1.8 trillion in savings, and, provisionally, would not be tied to any debt ceiling hike.  Instead, in this iteration,  a vote of disapproval would accompany the increase in borrowing authority early next year.

One area of disagreement, according to Democratic staff familiar with the talks, is over the enforcement mechanism that would ensure the commission’s findings were enacted. The commission would be empowered to find both revenue increases and spending cuts that would sum to $1.8 trillion. Republicans are demanding that if those savings aren’t met, an across-the-board cut of $1.8 trillion with no tax increases would be automatically phased in over 10 years. Democrats argue that such a trigger would give Republicans every incentive to sabotage an agreement through the formal commission, and that any trigger must also include revenue.

It may sound trivial, but the trigger is yet another example of the same fundamental disagreement that has tripped up negotiations for months: Republicans want to achieve deficit reduction purely through cuts, while Democrats want a mix of cuts and revenues. But there’s reason for hope.  This time, the negotiating room is much smaller. And for now, the two soft-spoken men with a long, shared professional history are the only ones in it.