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Reid’s Move Away From Spotlight on Cliff Deal Could Shield His Caucus

A consummate legislative tactician, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid emerged largely unscathed from the fiscal cliff battle of 2012, and his deft maneuvering helped protect his caucus from the ire of unhappy progressives.

But even some Democrats concede that the Nevada Democrat’s decision to step back from negotiations with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and allow the Kentucky Republican to craft a deal with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. could end up marginalizing Senate Democrats in future legislative negotiations.

McConnell appealed directly to Biden after negotiations with Reid collapsed last week, and the vice president and GOP leader ended up shaking hands on the deal that ultimately cleared Congress on New Year’s Day. But multiple Democratic sources say the final package was close to — though not as good as — Reid’s last offer to McConnell, and that the Republican leader reached out to Biden only after Reid refused to cave to his demands.

In the process, these sources contend, Reid helped ensure that an accord was reached to avert across-the-board tax hikes on all Americans even as he made certain that liberals unhappy with the compromise would blame the White House and Biden, rather than Senate Democrats. “Harry Reid was driving a pretty hard bargain and Mitch McConnell didn’t like it, so he went to the vice president for a softer touch,” said Jim Manley, Reid’s former spokesman. “The majority leader set the parameters that allowed Biden to step in and cut a deal.”

Some Republicans view Reid’s strategy differently, arguing that the Nevadan wanted to send the country over the fiscal cliff because House Republicans would likely catch most of the blame for the impasse, thereby creating political leverage for Democrats to craft a more favorable deal.

Some Democrats acknowledge that Reid could, in fact, be sidelined in future negotiations should McConnell make another end-run around the majority leader. The fight over the debt ceiling between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans, expected to begin almost immediately, could provide McConnell with another opportunity to “triangulate” with the White House, as one Democratic operative said the Kentuckian did quite adeptly at the eleventh hour of the fiscal cliff talks.

But Reid’s deference to the Biden-McConnell negotiations, and his decision to play the good soldier upon completion of the deal, should not be mistaken for being outfoxed, Democrats cautioned. Reid was being “intractable” on some tax issues that were sticking points for Republicans, a Democratic lobbyist said, so he allowed the White House to engineer the compromise, which provided him and his fellow Democrats the necessary political cover. “He’s all about getting a deal done,” a former Democratic Senate leadership aide said. “Whether Reid liked the sausage McConnell and Biden were making, it’s ridiculous to think he didn’t know what was going on every step of the way.”

A Republican lobbyist with relationships on both sides of the aisle said Reid played his role masterfully. “As a Republican it pains me to say this, but leader Reid completely outplayed McConnell and the House Republicans,” the lobbyist said. “The final deal reflects about 90 percent of Reid’s final offer to McConnell. So round one goes to Reid and the president.”

Of course, Democrats on and off of the Hill insisted that Reid could have achieved a better agreement for their party than Biden. These Democrats argue that the White House “blinked” because it was afraid of the repercussions of failing to reach a deal, despite the administration’s post-election bravado.

Though the deal received overwhelming Democratic support on the floor this week, Democratic Senate aides said there was “deep resentment” among members. Liberals were upset about what the administration negotiated with Republicans on taxes and moderates grumbled about the agreement’s effect on the federal deficit. Reid knew this, which is why he left it to Biden to twist arms and address blowback from members.

Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York didn’t confirm those details, but he told CQ Roll Call: “No one knows the pulse of the caucus better than Harry, and he held the line on our members’ priorities.”

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