Friday, March 18, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
It’s been more than a month since Democrats and Republicans drew lines in the sand over federal budget cuts, but the weeks of angry words and accusations have done nothing to bring the sides closer to a compromise.
So Sen. Harry Reid is taking a different approach. He’s trying to woo John Boehner.
“I have to hand a bouquet to Speaker Boehner,” Reid said following the Senate’s approval of a three-week patch to fund the federal government Thursday, on the heels of a rocky House passage the day before. “He realized he didn’t have enough votes to go with Republicans ... so he went to Democrats and said we need some votes.
“That’s the attitude that we need to keep moving forward.”
The majority leader hasn’t actually been sending the speaker bouquets of flowers, but Reid has appeared to take extra pains in the past few days to reserve kind words for Boehner, making sure to cast aspersions on the Tea Party when he talks about who’s to blame for the impasse — as if it were a separate entity from the Republican Party and not a wholly owned subsidiary.
“The Republican plan ... is the same plan the Tea Party already pushed through the House,” Reid said March 7, before the Senate took up the House-approved budget bill, which failed. “Now the same Tea Party is trying to push it through the Senate.”
And a week later, when Boehner, of Ohio, lost the support of much of the Tea Party for a short-term budget resolution (it died with the help of 85 Democrats), Reid applauded him.
“What has happened in the last 24 hours makes me think more of John Boehner,” Reid said Wednesday, congratulating him for “getting help from Democrats” and acting in the spirit of 19th-century House Speaker Henry Clay’s adage that “all legislation is founded upon the principle of mutual concession.”
The message is a clear form of tough-love flattery: Boehner, you’re not such a bad guy, the Democrats are saying, but man, those Tea Partyers are holding you down.
But the strategy behind it — divide-and-conquer — is a risky game when words and actions have the potential to resonate in the 2012 elections.
In trying to bring Republicans to the center, Reid could end up pushing the party farther to the right.
Reid isn’t the first to notice a fissure in Republican ranks, but by targeting it, he’s betting that House Republicans will use the Democrats’ invitation as a way to escape the pressure of their Tea Party wing, opening the door to more compromises.
“He’s trying to drive the wedge ... and some Republicans will fall for it every single time,” said Chuck Muth, a conservative strategist in Nevada.
But concerns about the budget, and the national debt ceiling, which the country is on course to crash into in the first half of April, are not the only things on Republican minds. As GOP lawmakers survey the political landscape in 2012, Nevada Reps. Dean Heller and Joe Heck among them, each faces a choice over how to fashion a candidacy: as a pragmatist or as a principled conservative.
Although Reid’s pat-on-the-back political absolution could help gain Republicans centrists in a general election, his blessings could be poison in a primary.
“If I’m a candidate for Congress, and somehow I’m able to show that one of my opponents was praised by Harry Reid in a Republican primary, that could be very bad,” Muth said. “It’s very Machiavellian of Reid.”
Although that could be part of Reid’s strategy — remember, while Tea Party candidates swept the nation, in Nevada, Reid bested Sharron Angle because of her ultraconservative connections — others say the Democrat’s new way with words is designed only to have an indirect effect on the stump.
In 2012, “I think the parties are going to be judged by what they get done in large part, so Sen. Reid’s strategy is to get something done,” Nevada-based Democratic strategist Dan Hart said. “He sees the traditional Republicans as easier to work with and less destructive to the process.”
Several Tea Party members have flexed their collective muscle during the budget standoff, with the most vocal advocating a hastening of a government shutdown if their demands for cuts are not met.
“These freshmen ... simply don’t believe there can be a positive role for government to sustain the middle class,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio.
But Republicans haven’t shown any signs they’re willing to disown them, even in the wake of votes where the Tea Party tells Republican leadership its approaches to fixing the economy are just as objectionable as Democrats’.
“It’s up to the Senate and the White House to offer a credible plan to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year,” Boehner said after Tuesday’s vote, in which 54 Republicans — including Heller — refused to support the speaker’s short-term continuing resolution. “The House is listening to the American people, and it’s time the Democrats who run Washington do the same.”