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Reid and McConnell: The Senate's odd couple

By Ed Hornick, CNN
Democratic leader Sen. Harry Reid, left, and GOP leader Sen. Mitch McConnell have a "congenial working relationship."
Democratic leader Sen. Harry Reid, left, and GOP leader Sen. Mitch McConnell have a "congenial working relationship."
  • Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are meeting to negotiate a debt deal
  • A former Reid aide says that while they're not the best of friends, they get along well
  • Aide notes their "different ideologies, but both have the respect from their caucus"

Washington (CNN) -- By all measures, Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are worlds apart when it comes to their politics. But there's at least one thing solidifying their relationship.

"Both are institutionalists at heart," said Jim Manley, a former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Reid, a Nevada Democrat. "They come from completely different ideologies but both have the respect from their caucus." He added that while they're not the best of friends, their bond is strong.

It's a view that Ron Bonjean, a former communications director to then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, the Republican from Mississippi, agreed with.

"You'll never see them slapping each other on the back or having a hearty laugh between them," said Bonjean, who's now a GOP strategist. "They do have a very congenial working relationship in order to make the Senate function."

"I consider Harry a friend, and I think we trust each other, and I think that's important for the institution"
--Sen. Mitch McConnell

McConnell has said that it's important for the two to have a good relationship.

"I consider Harry a friend, and I think we trust each other, and I think that's important for the institution," the Kentucky Republican said in an interview with Bloomberg News in January.

Manley said both leaders are smart enough -- often times smarter than their staff -- to not let the heated political rhetoric get in the way of cutting a deal.

That rhetoric has grown louder in Washington over the debt ceiling debate. Negotiations are at an impasse, and many say a compromise is a long way off. If the debt ceiling isn't raised by August 2, the United States will officially default on its loans. Many economists argue this will have a devastating effect on the world economy.

READ MORE: Who is in the Tea Party Caucus?

Knowing the seriousness of what's at stake, both leaders have put forth debt plans, though each eventually fizzled after fierce opposition in the House by the small but loud 60-member Tea Party Caucus and Democrats.

McConnell: 'Americans get it'
Reid: Boehner's plan 'will not pass'

"Both know that legislation is the art of compromise, unlike many in the House Republican leadership," Manley said. "Sen. McConnell understands that and is very good at giving just enough to get whatever needs to be done over the goalpost."

Bonjean said it's the tea party freshmen who should be looking to McConnell for expertise on how to change what's ailing how Washington works -- though many in the freshman class would argue that both leaders are part of the problem.

"And their expertise is definitely needed in a situation in this very volatile and turbulent environment where you have new outspoken freshmen who want to see change at the same time they need to get up to speed on how the system operates in order to change it," Bonjean said. "And that's where Sen. McConnell can be particularly effective -- he has a good understanding on how the Senate ticks and can make that change effectively."

The talks, meanwhile, continue. It often starts with a phone call early in the morning, Manley said. It's during meetings, though, that their personalities shine.

"I often times joke that the funny thing about their relationship is that Sen. Reid is the more talkative of the two. Neither is known for being very loquacious," Manley said. "In their private dealings, Sen. McConnell keeps his cards much closer to the vest."

"Senator McConnell ... is very good at giving just enough to get whatever needs to be done over the goal post."
--Jim Manley, former aide to Sen. Harry Reid

Bonjean agreed, saying McConnell is a "very reserved man who keeps his cards close and will only reveal as much information as he needs to in order to accomplish his goal."

For the two senators, it all comes down to respect. Reid, 71, told NPR in January that while his friend has pushed for the takedown of President Obama, he felt "comfortable" with his relationship with McConnell, 69, and his caucus to "get some good things done."

That level of respect also reaches to the campaign trail.

During Reid's hard-fought Senate re-election last year against tea party favorite Sharron Angle, McConnell refused to campaign against him, telling reporters in August 2010 that he would not go to Nevada. "I don't think it's appropriate," he said.


McConnell noted that Reid did not visit Kentucky during his re-election campaign in 2008.

Perhaps a large part of the reason stems from the ousting of then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004 when Republicans took control of the Senate.

"Both were a little uncomfortable with what happened with Tom Daschle when Republicans were taking on the majority leader," Manley said.

During the contentious 2008 financial bailout bill -- commonly referred to as TARP -- McConnell and Reid worked hard to get a compromise bill passed despite tough opposition from both sides of the aisle.

Former Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, also told Bloomberg that during the debate the two "got together very quickly."

"I remember the forcefulness with which they both gave the message immediately after the House vote: 'We are not leaving town. The Congress will stay here until this is done,'" Bennett said.

Now, as debt negotiations continue to press on despite a ticking clock, McConnell is trying to persuade his own party of the seriousness of what will happen August 2. Many tea party groups have struck down notions that a major catastrophe will happen.

But in an interview on July 13, McConnell told WHAS radio in Kentucky that his proposal, which would allow Obama to make three short-term debt ceiling increases between now and the end of 2012, was necessary.

The reason? Default would be "bad for Republicans."

"Given a choice between a bad deal and avoiding default, I choose to avoid default," McConnell said. "If we were to go into default ... the practical effect of that will be to allow the president to make us co-owners of a bad economy."

Reid also understands what's at stake and appears optimistic that an agreement may be reached.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Reid said despite the apparent deadlock, a legislative fix could come quickly. "Magic things can happen here in Congress in a very short period of time under the right circumstances," he said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, acknowledged recently the tough position McConnell is facing -- having to corral a caucus unwilling to bend on a tax increase plan that Obama and Democrats have called for.

READ MORE: Polls show Americans want compromise

Various polls have shown the American public overwhelmingly supports a debt plan that includes a mix of reforming the tax system, which would raise revenue, and large spending cuts.

"You have the Republicans who walked out of the (Vice President) Biden talks. You have the speaker of the House, who was close to entering into a framework agreement with the president of the United States, walk out because other Republicans undercut him," Van Hollen said. "And now you have Republicans trashing a proposal put forward by the Republican leader in the Senate."

Manley, however, said that while McConnell did come up with an idea that was trying to avoid the debacle taking place now in Congress, it was a "pretty Machiavellian maneuver and pretty cynical."

CNN's Ted Barrett and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.