Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) confronted White House budget director Jack Lew during a Thursday afternoon meeting about secret talks on a deficit-reduction deal between the president and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
“I’m the Senate majority leader — why don’t I know about this deal?” Reid demanded as soon as the budget director walked into the historic Mansfield Room for a meeting with Senate Democrats, according to a lawmaker who witnessed the exchange.
Lew shot back: “If there’s a deal, then the president doesn’t know about it, the vice president doesn’t know about it and I don’t know about it.
A Senate Democratic aide confirmed the exchange took place.
Democrats were outraged about reports that Obama was willing to accept major spending cuts in exchange for reforming the tax code at some point in the future as part of a deal to raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.
Reid and other Democrats warned the administration officials in the meeting that they might not support a deal between Obama and Boehner if kept out of the loop.
“It was a heated session,” said a senior Democratic senator who attended the lunch. “There’s a basic lack of trust with the president.”
The lawmaker said the lack of trust stems from what they suspect are secret negotiations taking place between Obama and Boehner, without the input of Reid and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).
“Harry’s not being included!” exclaimed the second senator.
Reid has told Democrats and Democratic allies that he did not have any of the details of a reported $3 trillion deficit-reduction deal coming together between Obama and Boehner.
The lawmaker said Senate Democrats “can’t be assumed to go along with whatever deal.”
Senate Democrats grilled Lew about whether the president was holding side talks with Boehner, according to a source who attended Thursday’s meeting.
Lew was somewhat evasive in his answer, leading some Democrats to conclude that Obama is conducting backchannel talks with Boehner.
Lew explained that Obama has to be able to negotiate one on one with Boehner if they are to come up with an agreement to raise the debt limit that can pass the House of Representatives.
“Obama and Boehner can’t put together anything that can pass the House if there are too many people in the room,” said a lawmaker who listened to Lew’s explanation.