WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has no interest in a budget deal that trades sequestration relief for entitlement cuts, believing that future spending reductions scheduled to hit the Pentagon give Democrats the upper hand. Instead, the Nevada Democrat told The Huffington Post on Thursday, any large-scale debt-reduction deal must include increased revenue in exchange for changes to mandatory spending programs.
The government funding and debt limit bill signed Wednesday night sets a Dec. 13 deadline for budget negotiators to report back to Congress. If no deal is struck, Congress will have until Jan. 15 to approve continued government funding or face another shutdown.
Reid's hard lines -- which were offered just hours after Wednesday night's deal was signed into law -- reflect an increased sense among Democrats that after a big shutdown victory, they are in a strong political position heading into the next crucial months of debt-reduction talks.
Reid noted that while the coming year of sequestration cuts -- if fully implemented -- would be painful, the worst of it will recede in coming years, as spending levels begin increasing automatically. That gives Democrats more leverage to say no to lopsided offers.
"I would like to suggest that maybe the Republicans aren't too happy with next year's sequestration. Who does it hurt, non-defense? I get an extra billion dollars this year compared to [last] year. Defense? They lose $23 billion," Reid said, referring to the Pentagon. "So I would think there should be some people among the Republicans in the House and Senate who would say we should take a look at that."
Two in particular, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have been adamant about addressing the effect sequestration is having on the military.
Reid also said that he would make sure to protect Social Security against attempts to trade cuts for sequestration relief, calling such a bargain "a stupid trade."
"That's no trade. We are going to affect entitlements so we can increase defense spending? Don't check me for a vote there. I'm not interested in that," he said.
"It is the most successful social program in the history of the world. The program is not about to go broke, so take it easy on Social Security," Reid said.
President Obama made a similar commitment during a meeting with the Democratic Senate caucus last week, but added that if the Republican offer also included infrastructure money or investment in early childhood education, a major priority of Obama's, it would at least be worth considering. The president added that he was open to reforms to Social Security Disability Insurance.
If Republicans want to trim Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, Reid said, they'd have to give on tax revenue in exchange. Asked specifically if the deal must be revenue for entitlements, he said: "Yes, and we call it mandatories."
Asked for a response to Reid's line in the sand, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), told The Huffington Post, "If Democrats truly believe sequestration is bad for our economy, they shouldn’t hold a fix ‘hostage’ for another round of tax hikes.”
Obama has repeatedly offered to cut Social Security as part of a grand bargain, by changing the way benefits are calculated so as to reduce future payments.
Republicans, meanwhile, have been increasingly referring to sequestration as a win for the party, with anti-tax activist Grover Norquist calling its implementation the defining moment of the decade. But Reid questioned how unanimous that opinion is. He also pushed back against the notion that sequestration was a victory at all.
"Try to explain that to the programs that are being devastated. [National Institutes of Health], take that one. Would you call that a success?" he asked. "Let the Republicans try and defend what they've done to our country."
For all his strategizing, however, Reid acknowledged that he doesn't yet have a firm read on his opponents. Asked if this shutdown loss had broken the GOP's hostage-taking strategy for the foreseeable future, he demurred.
"I don't know," he said. "I don't like terms like [broken] because remember, we are not dealing with rational folks. But I do believe that they have been hurt irreparably."
Ultimately, Reid said, he doesn't hold out much hope for a big deal with Boehner, who has been unable to bring his troops together.
"I hope this budget process works. If it doesn't, that gives us 30 days before the Jan. 15 date. So if that doesn't work, we will do something during that period of time," he said. "The sad part about this is that John Boehner, I've heard him say so many times, 'I didn't get elected Speaker to do small things.' Well, we have tried to do big things with him and he can never, ever, ever pull the trigger. It is all, 'I can't do that, my caucus won't let me.'"
Reid advised his cross-cameral colleague to ditch the so-called Hastert rule, which holds that a bill should only come to the floor if a majority of the majority supports it.
"I would hope that if we have learned nothing else from this sorry episode that they've created, I would hope that America, and maybe even Republicans in the House, will look at what they've done. Last night they did the right thing," he said. "The House of Representatives voted on a piece of legislation. I served in the House. That's the way it always used to be. There was never this majority of the majority, how silly. You in effect wipe out the talents of half the Congress," he continued.
"So I would hope that if we've learned nothing else from this, that we will now get rid of the stupid Hastert Rule."
This is a developing story and has been updated.