Can Senate Democrats' Shutdown Strategy Hold?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

With Democrats and Republicans squabbling fiercely over how to reopen the government, it’s Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—the former boxer—who compares lawmakers’ bickering to a schoolyard brawl.

“We are not going to be bullied,” Reid said Tuesday. “We have done everything we can, and we’ve done it very reasonably.”

As Reid’s 54-seat majority is tested to the limit by the first government shutdown in 17 years, the Nevada Democrat’s strategy has been simple: Do not give in to Republican demands to undo, excise, or delay any part of the Affordable Care Act.

It’s a strategy that has pressure-tested unity among Senate Democrats, who have so far stood fast in a series of high-profile votes to turn away House proposals that would have ended the standoff but handed Republicans something to brag about.

“This is a democracy. This cannot be how we govern,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “And I think that has been one of Harry Reid’s strongest messages: We cannot hand them the stick to beat us with.”

Whether Reid can hold Democrats together as the shutdown drags on—there is no sign that it will end in coming days—remains unclear. But House Republicans have already scaled back their offers, going from a full repeal of Obamacare, to a full delay, to a delay of a piece of the program. Reid, backed by his caucus and President Obama, has remained steady in his insistence that House Republicans adopt the continuing resolution the Senate passed on Friday.

The latest House suggestion involves adopting a piecemeal approach to funding government, with individual resolutions to fund national parks, Veterans Affairs, and the District of Columbia. Reid shot that idea down, too.

“Here’s their plan: Some of the rabble-rousers over there have said what they want to do is take little pieces of the government … and this will go on for weeks, but what won’t get funded is Obamacare,” he said, adding that “this is not serious.”

Republicans say Reid refuses to negotiate and compromise, and that he’s making life difficult for some Democrats facing reelection next year. But if any Democrats are sweating, they have nonetheless stood by Reid.

“I think he’s been very clear and absolutely right about what’s at stake here,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. “So I give him very high marks. It’s clear we have the votes here in the [Senate] to keep the government open. The House won’t allow a vote on it. I think Senator Reid’s been very effective in pointing that out.”

Senate Democrats insist that House Republicans will ultimately shoulder the brunt of public anger over the shutdown, but that’s a tide that could run both ways. Thus far, Reid and his allies don’t seem to fear any backlash.

“He’s done a really good job,” Warren said. “He’s held everyone together.”

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