Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker-designate John Boehner met privately Wednesday for the first time as equals, as the Nevada Democrat and the Ohio Republican seek to forge a relationship that was foisted on them by voters on Nov. 2.
Reid and Boehner have simultaneously served as leaders of their respective conferences for nearly five years and have been in Congress together for almost two decades. Yet the two have no history and were shaped by distinct experiences. Their obvious political and philosophical differences aside, each will face separate internal caucus pressure points next Congress as they seek to enact legislation capable of getting to President Barack Obama’s desk.
The lawmakers and operatives who know them predict a cordial working relationship, noting that both leaders enjoy a pragmatism that could enable bipartisan, cross-Dome cooperation on some key issues.
“They’re both pretty pragmatic,” said Sen. John Ensign (R), who served with Boehner in the House and has maintained an amicable relationship with Reid. “I think that they can learn to work together. They both have the personalities, I think, to do that.”
Neither Boehner’s office nor Reid’s would comment Wednesday on what the leaders discussed at their morning meeting, which was held in the Majority Leader’s Capitol office, other than to describe it as face time to get acquainted. Both leadership offices said the information lockdown was mutually agreed on and refused to comment, even when offered anonymity. Aides would only say that the hope was to develop a productive relationship.
“Boehner and Sen. Reid have a cordial relationship, though they have never worked closely together,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.
Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau added that the Majority Leader “believes the American people want Congress to stop the partisan bickering and find common ground. He hopes to accomplish that with the incoming Speaker.”
The course of the Reid-Boehner relationship could be determined by several factors, although how well they mesh personally will also play a role.
“In the legislative process, those personal relationships matter. You can disagree on policy but if you get along personally it can make a big difference,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), a Boehner ally and head of the House Republican Transition Committee. “If there’s a lot of animosity in the room, it doesn’t work too well.”
Reid is faced with a restless caucus concerned about a difficult 2012 election map and an empowered Republican minority of 47 seats. Boehner’s task will be to manage an aggressive Republican Conference with a large number of newcomers eager to deliver on their campaign promises, including the repeal of the health care law and massive cuts in government spending.
Frustration could boil over when Reid or the Speaker-designate feels stymied amid pressure from their Members.
“The biggest difference going forward is that John Boehner has 60-something new people, and he has to figure out how to harness them,” said Bruce Josten, a lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who has worked with both Boehner and Reid. “Harry Reid doesn’t have to harness anything. But he still has to get to 60.”
And Boehner doesn’t have a completely free hand in dealing with Reid; he will have to defer periodically to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Sen. Richard Burr, who is personally close with Boehner, expects that to happen on occasion.
“In more cases than not, John will yield to Mitch to be the liaison with Harry Reid versus for John to do it directly,” the North Carolina Republican said.
Burr and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) — another close friend of Boehner’s — said that while they don’t expect the Speaker-designate to bend on principles, Boehner does recognize that no legislation will pass without the Senate signing off.
At least a few veteran House Republicans seem to understand that reality.
“It’s important that the House and Senate work together in a meaningful way,” Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) said. “Clearly there is going to be some disagreements but for the no-brainer stuff” it’s important.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who served with Boehner in the House, warned that bipartisanship goes both ways. He said stubbornness on the part of the new House Majority would leave them empty-handed in terms of legislative accomplishments.
“I think it’s going to be difficult,” Brown said. “If Boehner is going to insist on the economic policies of more tax cuts for the richest Americans, more deregulation, more trade agreements. ... If that’s what Boehner is going to insist on, it’s going to be hard for any of us to cooperate.”