If you think the past three weeks of crisis over the government shutdown and now the looming debt ceiling have seemed like a soap opera, you're not alone. The drama in Washington has, at times, centered on a few key relationships, some of them matches made in political heaven, others marriages of convenience and some simply dysfunctional. Here are the most important power couples in Washington, and how their relationships could make or break compromise in Washington.
In some ways, they are the power couple who started it all, and yet these two couldn't be more different. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is the loquacious first-term senator with presidential ambitions whose political rise would be virtually impossible if not for the support of the Republican Party's tea party base. Most people have never heard of Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, but he wrote a letter to Senate Republican leaders months ago demanding that they use the upcoming negotiations over government funding to pressure Democrats into defunding president Obama's health care law.
And while Lee's letter ignited the controversy over the government shutdown, Cruz has taken just about all the credit for it. That hasn't torn the two apart, however. Quite the contrary: "Ted Cruz and I have been roundly criticized for our actions in an attempt to defund Obamacare," Lee said Friday at the conservative Christian Values Voter Summit. "We make no apologies." With Lee's help, Cruz has a much needed partner in his crusade in the Senate. Lee has the added advantage of being a partner who isn't seeking to steal his spotlight.
It's no secret that the two most powerful men in Washington don't have the warmest relationship in the world. They don't talk often, they hardly see each other in person. And there's plenty of public acrimony and flame throwing between the two. But at the end of the day, if any deal is to be had, it has to meet with the support of both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. President Obama has made it clear that if any lesson is to be learned from the 2011 debt-limit negotiations with Boehner, it is that he should simply not negotiate at all. Obama warned that setting a precedent of negotiating on the debt limit could change the "constitutional structure of this government." Another lesson Obama must have learned from 2011: even a round of golf won't save them this time around.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid feels sorry for John Boehner, that much he has made abundantly clear. The feeling is probably mutual. Their bickering is more than just about a personal distaste that the two men may have for each other.
It highlights the differences in how two leaders of their respective parties govern in the upper and lower chambers. While Reid has been largely successful in getting his 54-person caucus to stick together through the shutdown and debt-ceiling debacle, John Boehner has the much more difficult task of leading a disparate group of 232 Republicans, most of whom have to worry about getting re-elected in just a few short months. In the days leading up to the shutdown of the government, Reid and Boehner each sent legislation to the other chamber that they knew would go nowhere. As negotiations continue over a resolution to the shutdown and the debt ceiling, it will be another test of their ability to corral their members to support a real deal.
Two moderate senators, two different political parties. There's a compromiser in every conflict, and this time around Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., are the moderate senators willing to stick their necks out by proposing a "bipartisan" compromise that could get everyone out of this mess in Washington. Theirs is a relationship marked by reasonable-ness, or so they hope. As harbingers of the political "center" for both of their political parties, if their bid for compromise fails, it could spell real trouble. It's too early to tell, but so far just the fact that negotiations convened by this pair have produced talks between the two parties is an improvement on the no-talks, no-compromise stalemate that had characterized most of this episode thus far. The Collins-Manchin group of 12 senators hasn't reached an agreement, but they are still talking, and that's a good thing.
This duo from Kentucky were caught on an open mic discussing their strategy for talking in the media about the government shutdown earlier this month. "I think if we keep saying, 'We wanted to defund it. We fought for that and that we're willing to compromise on this' ... I know we don't want to be here, but we're going to win this, I think," Sen. Rand Paul told the senior senator from Kentucky and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the recording. Yes, it's a little strange that a first-term senator would be counseling his more senior colleague on how to win the messaging war about the government shutdown.
But consider this: McConnell is engaged in one of the most difficult political fights for re-election of his career as he tries to fend off a more conservative tea party challenger. He needs all the help he can get from one of the tea party's favorite senators. Paul and McConnell have forged an alliance publicly despite McConnell's being one of the least favorite lawmakers among the party's ardent conservative base. McConnell will need to rely on Paul's advice to determine just how far he can go to compromise and where he might need to stand his ground.
The Senate is supposed to be the "world's greatest deliberative body," but Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell sometimes argue on the Senate floor like feuding siblings. Neither man is in the mood for compromise for obvious reasons: Reid believes he has the upper hand, and McConnell is not eager to cave into Democratic demands while he's in the middle of fending off a more conservative re-election challenger.
Until recently, there was no evidence that the Senate majority leader and Senate minority leader were even talking about a way to get the country out of a government shutdown and away from the possibility of default. So when McConnell and Reid appeared to take the reins of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans Saturday, it was a rare moment. In the past, McConnell has relied on his relatively cordial relationship with longtime senator and now Vice President Joe Biden to strike big deals with the White House. But with Biden now out of the picture, this marks the ultimate test of whether these two men can put the bickering aside and come to an agreement.