Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, July 9, 2011 | 2 a.m.
As budget talks come to a head over potential cuts to Medicare and Social Security, the relationship between President Barack Obama and his No. 1 man in the Congress — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — is being tested.
The talks present the third existential crisis in Congress since the midterm elections.
Each round has put pressure on Obama and Reid’s relationship — pressure that has caused the relationship to bend, but never break.
In December, Reid gritted his teeth when Obama approached Senate Republicans to strike a deal on a sweeping tax compromise. Then this spring, Reid and House Speaker John Boehner hashed out a budget deal to avoid a government shutdown.
The difference this round? Reid hasn’t in the past staked his political reputation on the subjects that have divided the allies as he now has on Social Security.
“Simply said, it’s off the table,” Reid said of proposed changes to Social Security in January, before anybody was talking about the entitlement program being on the block.
But that’s not what one hears from the White House.
“(The president) is willing to and thinks it’s important to talk about the long-term strength of Social Security,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday, after Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met with congressional leaders on a budget deal that would include an agreement to raise the debt limit before the nation defaults on its obligations, after Aug. 2. “Everything is on the table.”
The White House has complained that the panic and outrage Obama’s stance has caused in the Democratic caucus is ludicrous: Obama hasn’t changed his position since the State of the Union address this year, when he included Social Security on the list of programs the government would re-examine in the long term.
But the issue is that the administration won’t unequivocally say Social Security won’t sustain cuts in the deal.
Reid, meanwhile, has essentially challenged anyone who tries to make such cuts to do it over his dead body.
Reid and Obama’s relationship, until this congressional session, has been a symbiotic one. Reid served as one of Obama’s closest mentors when he was still a senator, and was the strategist and hard-knuckled executor of Obama’s policies during the first two years of his presidency — years when Congress accomplished the most it has in any single session since the Great Society years. In turn, Obama lent Reid political muscle when he needed it most in the final weeks of his last election.
For someone who has taken such a strong stand on Social Security, Reid’s been remarkably quiet about the budget negotiations.
The quiet is more noticeable because Reid’s counterpart in the House, Nancy Pelosi, has passionately and publicly reminded Obama, Republicans, and anybody else who might be thinking of tampering with Social Security, that House Democrats would be happy to withhold their vote from the deal.
But Pelosi, as a member of the House minority, has the freedom of opposition; Reid, on the other hand, is supposed to be Obama’s executor.
Except that on the budget deal, the process appears to have been taken out of his hands.
Last weekend, Obama hunkered down with House Speaker John Boehner. Since that meeting, Obama has set budget targets that are closer to what Republicans want than what Democrats had been considering: about $4 trillion in cuts over the next 12 years, including to entitlement programs.
The meeting is reminiscent of December, when Obama appeared to circumvent Reid’s leadership to strike a lame-duck deal with Senate Republicans over taxes — backing Reid into a corner where he had to agree to most of the deal to save face.
If it looks like the same thing is happening now, some say, it might be strategic.
“Harry Reid can say things that Barack Obama can’t; he can be a more strident voice to counteract the Republican strident voice,” said Eric Herzik, political science professor at UNR. “So instead of ‘oh, he and Obama are just at loggerheads’, it could very well be that Reid is the tough guy on Social Security in a fight that Barack Obama has to kind of stand above.
“If Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell can go at it over Social Security or any part of the budget, that then sets up Barack Obama and John Boehner to get a deal,” Herzik continued.
But by staying quiet, Reid appears willing to break the relationship with Obama on principle no matter how dearly held the principle.
It could be a nod to the political realities, experts said.
“Obviously this is going to create a lot of tension, but at the end of the day, those two are hitched together,” said UNLV political science professor David Damore. “If (Social Security) is part of what the deal’s going to be, they’ll try to reframe it so that it won’t be about cutting, it’ll be about sustaining longevity, and try to claim credit for something else — deficit reduction, throwing off the oil subsidies ... something to hang your hat on to show that circumstances have changed and it’s a totally different situation.
“Reid’s a tough cookie, but he knows that if he wants his state to go blue in November, it’s going to be Obama’s money that makes that happen,” Damore continued.
Neither the White House nor congressional leaders would reveal how a change to Social Security might be structured. But the White House is stressing it wants a “big,” comprehensive budget deal that extends beyond 2012 and includes “painful but necessary” cuts to entitlement spending.
It seems likely that Reid will be pushed to a point where he’ll either have to say no, or eat crow.
After declaring Social Security “off the table” at that news conference this year, Reid went on to elaborate.
“As long as I am majority leader, I will do everything within my legislative powers to prevent privatizing or eliminating Social Security,” he said.
His power may simply not go as far as he’d like.