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Cross-Dome Tensions on the Rise

Majority Party Infighting Upends the Agenda

Douglas Graham/Roll Call
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ruffled his House colleagues when he couldn’t guarantee passage of a measure extending unemployment benefits and Medicare payments to doctors.

The always-fractious relationship between House and Senate Democrats hit a dramatic low last week that resulted in Members leaving for the Memorial Day recess having failed to extend unemployment benefits or avert a pay cut for doctors under Medicare.

And while publicly, House and Senate leaders refused to assign blame, the behind-the-scenes story was far different.

The deadline for the benefits package had been looming for weeks. But all the advance warning was for naught as the lack of trust between the two chambers escalated and an anti-deficit-spending sentiment among rank-and-file moderates grew. House leaders were forced to strike about $80 billion from their bill, including COBRA health benefits for the unemployed and Medicaid assistance to states. But the bill only came together Thursday evening, and Senate leaders decided they had waited around long enough and headed for the exits.

House aides ripped the Senate for failing to look for votes for the original bill Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) had negotiated with Ways and Means Chairman Sander Levin (D-Mich.), while Senate aides said they couldn’t whip a package until Senators knew it could pass the House, which appeared dicier by the day.

And it didn’t help that various moderate Democratic Senators kept dumping on the bill.

The situation came to a head Wednesday, when House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) confronted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to ask him what he could clear through the Senate. House aides said Reid suggested shrinking the length of the “doc fix” for Medicare payments to make the bill cheaper. But the Nevada Democrat still couldn’t guarantee it would pass.

“The House wanted a guarantee of a specific outcome,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “No Majority Leader in good faith could make that promise.”

House Democratic aides shot back that there was no reason why they couldn’t have been working the original Baucus-Levin bill, which they had been led to believe by the Senate could pass.

But Senate aides dismissed House complaints, accusing House leaders of floating three versions of the bill in the space of nine days.

“Which proposal were we supposed to whip?” the aide asked. “You don’t get a Senator to commit to support a piece of legislation unless you have the details.”

Another senior Democratic Senate source said House leaders further angered Reid by waiting until Wednesday to determine what the House could advance.

When Hoyer and Reid met that morning, the aide said, it was “clear that the House was having trouble getting their act together.”

That was a problem for Reid because Senate Republicans had already let it be known that they were planning to draw out — and possibly filibuster — the bill.

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