By Bob Cusack
Strained relationships between key Democratic and Republican negotiators pose significant hurdles to a bipartisan deal that would avert a government shutdown and a default on the nation’s debt obligations.
Ron Bonjean, a former aide to House and Senate Republican leaders, said, “In the high stakes of fiscal showdowns, leaders in Washington either don’t trust each other or don’t trust that they will be able to deliver the votes. This breaks down the negotiations into hyper partisan warfare and changes the focus from achieving a deal to ginning up base voters.”
Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, said, “We’re going to have disagreements, but they can’t be personal.”
Democratic strategist David Mercer noted that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has said a government shutdown and failure to raise the debt limit could have major consequences on the economy.
“Now, relationships between President Obama and GOP leaders are perhaps strained because time and again the president has reached out in good faith to try and set policy supported by strong majorities of Americans, and Republican leaders have been unable to act because they can’t control the fringe elements in their caucus,” Mercer said.
Both parties have scars from the 2011 debt limit fight as well as a slew of other economic disputes. It remains to be seen if they can put aside their differences in the coming weeks.
The following is a rundown of relationships that matter this fall.
Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). The president and the Speaker played golf together a couple years ago — and not since. The relationship has grown frosty, especially after a so-called “grand bargain” on taxes and entitlements collapsed in 2011. Boehner crowed that he got 98 percent of what he wanted in the Budget Control Act negotiations, but he stumbled badly during the "fiscal cliff" debate late last year.
After that debacle, Boehner said he would no longer negotiate one-on-one with Obama. The president, meanwhile, has said he will not repeat the ugliness of 2011, vowing not to haggle over raising the debt ceiling.
On Friday evening, the president reiterated to the Speaker in a telephone call that he will not horse trade on the debt limit. Boehner told the president the two chambers of Congress will chart the path ahead, according to the Speaker’s office. It was a brief call, a Boehner aide said.
Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). In many ways, Boehner and Reid are alike. They are both old-school legislators who know how Washington works. The two men struck a deal in 2011 at the eleventh hour to avert a government shutdown. Sources close to Boehner and Reid said at the time there was a mutual admiration for one another.
The fiscal cliff showdown changed things, however. During those talks, Boehner uncharacteristically cursed at Reid after the Nevada Democrat suggested the Ohio Republican was more interested in "keeping his Speakership than keeping the nation on sound financial footing.”
The blunt-speaking Reid is likely to heat up his rhetoric against House Republicans in the coming days.
Obama and congressional Democrats. As the GOP fights its civil war on defunding ObamaCare, Democrats are skirmishing over the sequester. House Democratic leaders, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), have put the White House on notice on sequestration. Their message: Don’t accept a deal that keeps the sequester untouched.
Pelosi has attempted to downplay friction between her caucus and the president. Obama, meanwhile, has vowed to help Pelosi become Speaker again.
Obama and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The president and McConnell have never had a warm relationship and it’s unlikely to improve any time soon. Earlier this year, Obama cracked a joke at the White House Correspondents’ dinner about the minority leader, saying many people in the nation’s capital — including him — are not rushing to grab a drink with McConnell.
McConnell has struck deals with the Obama administration, but those agreements have been brokered with Vice President Joe Biden. But now, McConnell is focused on his reelection bid and Biden is eyeing a 2016 White House bid. Those campaign dynamics could lessen both men’s dealmaking roles.
Reid and McConnell. The two Senate leaders have had a long working relationship, but the bond is not as strong as it once was. Jousting over the upper chamber’s filibuster rules this summer generated tension. And more friction between Reid and McConnell is likely this cycle as the Democratic Party aims to defeat the five-term GOP senator in 2014.
Boehner and Pelosi. The top two leaders in the House have a cordial relationship, but they are not close. House Democrats want Boehner’s Speaker gavel back, and are in no hurry bail out GOP leaders who are struggling to corral their members.
Independent political handicappers say it is highly unlikely that Democrats will regain control of the House in 2014. But a government shutdown or a default could change that.
Along those lines, Democrats are banking on a chaotic fall to help them pick up seats next year.