If electing Nancy Pelosi as minority leader last year was supposed to provide Democrats with a rough-and-tumble foil against Republican Speaker John Boehner, things haven’t quite worked out as planned. In the looming battle over federal spending, and the growing real possibility of a government shutdown, Pelosi’s been relegated to a bit part. Of course, Barack Obama will play a starring role, but in Congress, the face of the Democrats will be that of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In the majority-rules House, Pelosi only could watch powerlessly as Boehner’s conservative majority passed its deep budget cuts over the heads of her minority Democrats. That leaves Reid as the only Democrat with any power in Congress to stand in the way of Republican plans to cut an array of domestic programs back to ineffectual nubs.
It’s an odd reversal of roles. Pelosi is the more partisan scrapper; Reid, by nature, is more the bipartisan deal-cutter. Time was when, as speaker, Pelosi would fight for Democratic priorities like the health care public option, while Reid sought compromise to pass legislation.
Fresh off his tough re-election fight last fall, however, Reid seems to have cottoned to his new assignment. The Nevadan and his top Senate lieutenants have, for weeks, been pushing Boehner to explicitly renounce a government shutdown and negotiate a new budget in good faith. Reid has brought $41 billion in budget cuts to the table, roughly half of what Republicans want. Other than that, the majority leader appears to be standing his ground. He and his fellow Senate Democrats continue to reject accepting the GOP level of cuts wholesale, saying that they would put at risk too many national priorities such as education, border security, and job creation.
Reid seems to understand that it’s up to him to prevent massive layoffs, cuts to food safety inspections, and other programs upon which millions of Americans rely. He also appears to know that public opinion is on his side. Nearly half of Americans continue to say that the economy and jobs are their top concern, while just 7 percent say the same of the federal deficit. Further, a recent poll shows that most Americans disagree with many of the cuts Boehner and his tea party-fueled majority are pushing. And yes, Reid happens to be backed up by that Democrat in the White House who holds a veto pen. And we know what happened the last time a Democratic president faced down irresponsible GOP budget-cutters: he was re-elected in a landslide.
So Boehner may be listening too much to his tea party friends, and flying headlong into a political buzzsaw in the process. Perhaps he counted on Harry Reid to tremble and fold. So far, though, Reid has shown nothing but spine, and the new Republican speaker could find himself in for a world of political hurt. Boehner would do well to understand this, and get himself to the bargaining table quickly.