Top Senate Democrats are competing to influence not just the fiscal cliff talks but also the man who is leading them in the debt and deficit battles to come — Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The result has been a series of major policy speeches by the Nevada Democrat’s leadership team that have at times revealed discord underlying the party’s preferred approach to short-term and long-term budget battles. And while it’s not yet clear who has captured Reid’s attention, sources said more details of the fiscal cliff talks will come to light in the next few days as lawmakers in both parties and chambers test the numbers and scenarios they’ve been running behind closed doors.
Over the past few months, Reid’s trusted allies, one by one, have delivered high-profile speeches on fiscal issues as they attempt to draw bright lines on policy prescriptions for the fiscal cliff and beyond. Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Max Baucus of Montana put their stamps on the fiscal debate over the summer. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York delivered his address in October, and Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois joined the debate Tuesday with a speech at the Center for American Progress.
The public showings are just a small part of how these players are positioning themselves inside closed-door leadership and caucus meetings, but even if each is acting in accordance with his or her policy beliefs, they are simultaneously measuring themselves and their efficacy against each other.
“At big moments, that’s always in the backs of their minds,” one off-Hill Democratic operative said of the deputies’ relative sway with Reid. “What you want to demonstrate is not just being the first to run to the microphones or throwing things to the wall to see if it sticks, it’s about being thoughtful, working behind the scenes and showing if you can be a consensus builder.”
The operative, who tracks Senate Democratic leadership, noted that getting an idea or provision included in the final fiscal cliff deal could be a trophy for any of the players, and set that person or persons up to be a bigger player in major budget debates next year.
Reid did not commission or approve Durbin’s speech Tuesday nor Schumer’s speech last month at the National Press Club in which he denounced using tax revenues to lower rates. Reid also didn’t greenlight Murray’s July address that in many ways set the party’s marker for the current fight — that going over the fiscal cliff would be preferable to negotiating a bad deal. And Reid didn’t ask Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, to give his June speech on overhauling the tax code, tackling entitlements and “slaying some sacred cows.”
But aides say the majority leader is acutely aware of the personalities and strengths of each person in the room and that Reid often plays the senators’ internal tensions against one another to get tasks done, quipping about one leader when asking another leader to do a favor for him.
Of course, aides across Democratic leadership insist their respective bosses’ motives are pure, even as they question the motives of others. They also note that while there are some differences among the messages and opinions given by top Democrats, the core message of “Americans paying their fair share” has been consistent.
All acknowledged that Senate Democrats’ negotiating position on the fiscal cliff is secondary to the White House and House Republicans in the current talks to renew expiring tax cuts and stave off automatic discretionary cuts scheduled to begin Jan. 1. But sources say Democrats are more involved now than they were in the summer of 2011, when they found themselves out of the loop on Obama and Boehner’s talks on raising the debt limit.
The White House has been doing more outreach with Reid’s office than last time, and each key Senate Democratic player has learned from the experience.
Murray, who is slated to become Budget chairwoman in January, drew from her stint as co-chairwoman of the supercommittee when she spoke in July about the need to play chicken with Republicans on raising the top rates for highest incomes.
“For her, she saw the fact that she is the second-ranking member of the Budget Committee, saw that this was going to be a reality because of the [Joint Select Committee for Deficit Reduction], saw this was coming and that we were going to have to be tough to have leverage at the end,” said one aide familiar with her thinking at the time.
Durbin did not threaten to go over the cliff as Murray did. Instead, he sees his position as one of the more established liberals in the Senate, but one who also took part in the president’s 2010 fiscal commission and the bipartisan “gang of six” (now eight).
On Tuesday, Durbin hoped to appeal to progressives nervous about changes to entitlements and deficit reduction in general. He outlined an approach that praised the Simpson-Bowles commission recommendations for which he voted. And he advocated keeping Medicare and Social Security out of talks on the fiscal cliff, while pushing liberals to tackle those programs in the next Congress.
As the Finance chairman, Baucus attempted to lay out a view for tax reform that many Democrats have been loath to embrace, given that he has vaguely referenced getting rid of middle-class tax credits and breaks as a way to achieve comprehensive tax reform.
Though Schumer serves on Finance, he has largely been caught up as the party’s top messenger. His speech struck some aides as an attempt to move away from the role of partisan attack dog at a time when such rhetoric may be less useful in sensitive bipartisan talks. Schumer’s pitch in October went squarely against Durbin’s gang of six framework, and he argued that the construct they were operating under would not result in a net increase in tax revenue.