Reid, McConnell, overcame frosty relationship to end government shutdown

Just three months ago, it would have been hard to see Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., coming together to broker the deal that ended the government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis.

The two leaders - who have never had an especially warm relationship - were locked in a bitter battle over Republican tactics to delay executive branch nominees, prompting Reid to accuse McConnell of reneging on previous promises and threaten to use a procedural measure so dire it is called the "nuclear option."

If he did that, McConnell warned right back, Reid would go down in history as "the worst majority leader ever."

That was in July. By mid-October, the two lawmakers seemed to be the only hope for avoiding a catastrophic default on the U.S. debt. How they did it boils down to a shared understanding of the inner workings of the U.S. Senate, and the fact that the deal allows McConnell to claim a measure of victory.

"I think both Mitch and Harry are really people of the Senate," said former New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, who was a close ally of McConnell. "They understand because they've been in the Senate most of their professional career and because they have an intuitive sense of the way the Senate works."

The two have a long history together. Elected just two years apart in the mid-1980s, the two have served in the Senate together for nearly 30 years. They've served together on the Appropriations Committee, and as whips before they became their party leaders. But they've had a rocky history particularly when it comes to both men's recent election battles.

It wasn't guaranteed that the two would negotiate with each other. During negotiations around the fiscal cliff last winter, McConnell sought out Vice President Joe Biden as a negotiating partnerafter talks between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, fell apart, and the two men ultimately crafted the deal that passed both houses of Congress.

This time, talks between the White House and the House GOP barely even got off the ground because the White House refused to negotiate. That left Reid to take the take the lead on negotiations with McConnell, especially as Boehner struggled toput together a deal that could pass his conference.

"Sen. Reid saw that he had the united caucus and that a whole bunch of Senate Republicans were upset with the direction this was going, and so Sen. Reid could tell the president, 'hang tough and we can grind it out' and that's exactly what he did," said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Reid.

Reid and McConnell's their long experience in the Senate binds them together, and has given both men an understanding when to start negotiating and when to take a back seat - like on Tuesday, when McConnell put the Senate talks on hold in order to allow the House time to see if they could cut a deal. It's a precise dance, once Gregg likened to "knowing when to take the soufflé out of the oven."

They also share a similar negotiating style, which Gregg described as "forthright...what you see is what you get."

And it didn't hurt that McConnell saw victory in the fact that the agreement, for the time being, preserved the spending cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act and left room for Republicans to negotiate changes to the Affordable Care Act in the future. McConnell made no secret of Republicans' intent to do so, saying his members "remain determined to repeal this terrible law," after Reid announced the deal.

"All you had to do was to watch Sen. McConnell's smile on the Senate floor this afternoon to realize that he saw a larger political calculation for himself by cutting the deal at this point in time," said Manley. "He obviously is not feeling the heat of the tea party too much right now and is looking to try to seal the deal with the [Kentucky Senate] primary."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for