Coburn, Reid Reach Détente

Senators Working On Deals

Posted March 3, 2009 at 6:44pm

Correction Appended

After a two-year battle that frayed both political and personal nerves, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) appear to have forged a peace agreement.

It is relatively common for Coburn to tangle with not only Democratic leaders but also Senators in his own party, while Reid is well-known for his temper and his penchant for letting political feuds simmer, sometimes for years.

So lawmakers, staff and reporters alike were caught off guard when the two Senators were seen on the floor conferring — not once, not twice, but at least three times on Monday over how to handle a package of amendments Coburn is offering to the omnibus bill.

Aides said a deal could be reached as early as this week to allow Coburn votes on his proposals, including one targeting earmarks for clients of the PMA Group lobbying firm, which is now under investigation by the FBI.

Reid even gave Coburn’s package grudging praise in a floor statement Monday: “A lot of thought has gone into [Coburn’s] amendments and they’re very difficult. … I’d like to avoid them, but I don’t see any reason how I can do that.—

Similarly, Reid said on Tuesday that so long as Coburn’s amendments aren’t simply political in nature but designed to improve the bill, they might get considered. If they “are an effort to improve the bill by Dr. Coburn, that’s one thing,— Reid said.

Similarly, Coburn has taken a decidedly kid-glove approach to his one-time arch rival Reid over the past week. Unlike virtually all of his House and Senate colleagues who spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, Coburn did not use the forum to slam the Majority Leader, who is up for re-election this cycle and is a top GOP target.

Likewise, Coburn has not joined his GOP colleagues in lampooning one of Reid’s earmarks, which Republicans have dubbed the “Red Light Express.— The earmark, which is in the omnibus spending bill, would in part help build a train line to service Carson City as well as Round House, home to four of Lyon County’s brothels. Republicans are hoping the spending item could become this Congress’ “Bridge to Nowhere,— the planned Alaska bridge that Democrats used as an example of wasteful pork-barrel spending.

While the earmark is the kind that Coburn would normally attack, he has not, at least at this point. Republicans close to the issue said Coburn appears to be trying to, as one put it, “play nice— with Reid while the two negotiate the PMA earmark proposal.

The very fact that the two masters of the chamber’s rules are even close to a deal stands in stark contrast to the often bitter and ugly battles they engaged in throughout much of the 110th Congress.

Last year, Reid and Coburn’s relationship hit its lowest point over Reid’s handling of a public lands package that Coburn consistently blocked.

Reid on several occasions used the chamber as a forum to do battle with Coburn, spending weeks trying to break his filibuster as the two lawmakers traded public barbs.

Reid eventually broke through this year when enough of Coburn’s colleagues, who had stood by him on principle despite their support for key aspects of the package, voted to move the bill.

But in the few months since that vote, the two lawmakers appear to have come to some type of detente — at least for now.

For his part, Coburn said he has never had hard feelings for the Democratic leader.

“There was never any acrimony on my part,— Coburn said, adding that “we never quit talking— and that their relationship remains cordial.

Coburn acknowledged that by nature he can be an “annoyance— to leadership. He added that while Reid is “going to occasionally have problems with me,— neither man is intent on holding a grudge.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley acknowledged his boss can be passionate about the legislative process, but his years in the Senate have taught him there is little value in souring Member-to-Member relationships. “Harry Reid learned a long time ago you can’t hold grudges around here,— Manley said.

The two lawmakers have little in common politically or philosophically, Manley said, but Reid will not allow their previous wars to affect his handling of the conservative gadfly in the future.

“He’s always going to have differences with the guy. But he’s a United States Senator, so we’re going to have to deal with him,— Manley said.

Correction: March 4, 2009

The article incorrectly indicated that an earmark for a train line dubbed the “Red Light Express— servicing a Nevada town known for its brothels also would service Las Vegas. The earmark, supported by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), would service the state’s capital, Carson City, as well as Round House, home to four of Lyon County’s brothels.