Divides over electoral strategy and a tax deal reflect stresses between the Senate's top Democrat and the Obama administration.
This isn't how Harry Reid wanted to go out.
After losing his majority and seeing his top aide engage in a strangely public war of words with the White House, Reid suffered another humiliation: Last week, the Obama administration cut his legs out from under him on a tax deal he was trying to negotiate with the GOP, issuing a public veto threat from the White House before a deal was even struck. Reid threw in the towel—walking away from the negotiations and leaving the mess for another Democrat to sort out with Republicans, who are enjoying the fractious show across the aisle.
Reid told reporters Tuesday: "It's hard to veto a deal that doesn't exist. There was never an agreement reached to veto. ... For whatever reason, that ended the discussions."
These are just the latest signs in recent months of tension between Reid's office and the White House that have aides and members on the Hill privately rumbling about a strain between the administration and its top ally in Congress.
Staff-level arguments over electoral strategy leading up to the 2014 elections and blame-gaming in the wake of steep losses have deepened the apparent rift, which went public in explosive New York Times and Washington Post stories describing bitter relations between Reid's staff—namely, his top aide David Krone—and the White House.
"I don't know if it's the White House's fault or Harry Reid's fault. But it's obvious that there's not good communication between them," said Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who was recently added to the Democrats' leadership roster but emphasized that he is "not a confidant of Harry Reid" and would not join leadership meetings until next year.
Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a longtime Obama ally who opposed Reid's nomination to another term as Democratic leader, called the tensions the result of a "new reality," pointing to the sting of 2014 losses and the fact that two-thirds of the Democratic conference in the Senate has never had to serve in the minority. "There [is] automatically, after a loss—you know, 'Why did it happen? Did you do this wrong? Did we do this wrong?' So there's a little of that. That's not unusual," Kaine said.
Chief on the list of alleged mistakes by the White House is its handling of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, according to both Kaine and Jim Manley, a former Reid spokesman. "The idea that members were caught flat-footed because of a breakdown of a website is still, you know, rather kind of amazing," Manley said.
But Kaine noted that the White House also has "some things that they think the Senate could have done differently. The important thing is to have a discussion about, OK, let's all acknowledge we all had a hand in this. … The real issue now going ahead is, OK, what's the strategy? And that discussion is starting and it's starting within the caucus, but also in the White House."
These episodes have Senate Republicans gleefully discussing disarray on the Democratic side of the aisle, after growing used to repeated analysis about infighting in GOP ranks. In a press conference Tuesday, Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune remarked on the recent "Democrat-on-Democrat violence" both within the conference and with the White House, pointing to the tax-extenders fight as merely the "most recent example."
A senior Senate Democratic aide called reports of tension between Reid and the Obama administration "overstated," arguing that "people are reading too much into a few isolated incidents." The aide went on to say that there is "no tension" between Reid and the president themselves. Reid's office and the White House speak multiple times per day, the aide said.
Last month, White House press secretary Josh Earnest touted the president's "strong working relationship" with Reid when asked about the strain, citing a "litany of legislation that was passed successfully through the United States Senate because of the stewardship and leadership of Senator Reid."
"That's been the view of everybody here at the White House up to and including the president, and that continues to be the view here," Earnest said.
But the White House's move to dismiss Reid's negotiation over tax extenders has brought the issue back to the forefront of many minds on Capitol Hill. Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said he was "very surprised" to see the administration undercut Reid in those negotiations. "It shows how stupid they are," he added.
"I've never seen anything quite like it," Manley said of the White House threatening to veto the package before it had even been finalized.
Earnest defended the early veto threat in a press conference later Tuesday, telling reporters that "the emerging outlines of that deal ... clearly violated what the president believes is a core principle of his economic philosophy." President Obama's objections included that the deal lacked permanent extensions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, both of which the White House had pushed for.
The deal Reid orchestrated with House Republicans, Earnest said, "would shower significant tax benefits on well-connected corporations without providing much relief to working people in this country."
The package that was floated through the media did include some of Reid's fingerprints: an extension of state and local tax deductions that he had pushed for, as well as transit deductions pushed by his No. 2 deputy, Chuck Schumer.
It remains unclear who leaked the details of the negotiations, which were kept in few hands. Those privy to the conversation included Reid, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, House Speaker John Boehner, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp—and the White House. Some in Reid's camp have speculated that the administration leaked the document in order to threaten a veto.
"I don't know who leaked it. There have been a bunch of leaks," the senior Democratic aide said, adding that there was a "miscommunication on what was being negotiated and how far along it was."
Regardless, Manley, who worked in the Senate for more than two decades, called the personal relationship between the two men "rock solid." And Reid himself told The New York Times last month that issues between his office and the White House were "staff-driven," telling detractors to "just get over it."
Manley also called tension between the majority leader and the lame-duck president nothing new, noting that over the next two years Reid will have to shift his focus to the concerns of his members who will be on the ballot in 2016. "This is the point in time when the interests of the members on the Hill and those in the White House begin to diverge," Manley said. "It's going to happen more and more as we head into the last two years of the session."
But, Manley added, as Republicans begin to make use of their new majority, Democrats will unite around their common enemy and come back together—including the White House. "Senator Reid is, now more than ever, going to be the president's most important ally on the Hill. Under the rules of the House, Democrats over there are irrelevant to the process. It will be up to Reid to protect the administration as House and Senate Republicans try to pass one piece of extreme legislation after another," he said.
For now, Reid is doing exactly what the White House wants: pushing as many of the president's nominees through the Senate as possible before Democrats lose control of the chamber. As of Monday, Democrats had 130 nominees, including 12 ambassadors, remaining on their list and just two or three weeks to deal with them.
Reid is working with Senate Republicans to get a deal to push "a lot" of them through before the end of the year, the senior Democratic aide said. Barring an agreement, Reid will get done as many as he can, the aide said.
"It doesn't take Einstein to figure out there aren't enough hours in the day or the week over the next month to get these done," Reid told reporters Tuesday. "So we're going to do the very best we can, get as many as we can get done, and hopefully we'll get some cooperation from Republicans to get more rather than less."