A Small Man in a Big Job
The petty reign of Harry Reid
Jan 21, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 18 • By MICHAEL WARREN
In February 2010, a massive snowstorm blanketed the nation’s capital and closed the federal government. Harry Reid was holed up in his condominium at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington’s swanky West End neighborhood, reading the news in his pajamas. He came across an Associated Press story on the Democrats’ jobs package, a mixture of spending provisions and tax credits. The story referred to the jobs bill as “light on new initiatives on boosting hiring and heavy with provisions sought by lobbyists for business.” Montana’s Max Baucus, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and the Republican ranking member, Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, had reached a deal extending several tax credits that benefited business, keeping the staffs of Reid and Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, informed of the negotiations.
When word of the deal had leaked a day earlier, liberals were incensed. Baucus, a red-state Democrat, was viewed by the left wing of the party as a patsy for conservatives. Despite increased pressure from progressives to abandon the deal, Reid appeared to be moving forward on it. “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he hopes to pass the measure this week,” reported the AP.
At the Ritz-Carlton, Reid read his own words in print and made a snap decision. The next day, at a noon press conference in the Capitol, he dropped the bomb. The jobs bill, including the carefully crafted tax deal, was being scrapped, he told reporters. Reid would instead introduce a new “pared-back” bill, without the tax proposals that had enraged the left. This was the first time Baucus had heard his hard-fought agreement was being thrown away. To the finance committee senators and staff, it was weeks of hard work down the drain. To Reid, it was business as usual.
Reid is odd, temperamental, mercurial, obstinate, and rude. He says things that “make you cringe,” as one senator put it. Once, while waiting for President Obama outside the Oval Office, Reid greeted a tall female West Wing staffer by telling her she was his “favorite big woman,” while Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett was his “favorite small woman.” Reid quickly “clarified,” telling her he only meant that she was his favorite big woman “at the White House.”
In the Reid regime, the Senate operates more or less at his whim. Members are frequently caught off guard when he decides to bring a bill up for debate. Reid will promise to allow a senator to present an important amendment only to change course at the last minute and claim he never made the promise at all. I asked Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, a top political opponent of Reid who nevertheless speaks highly of the majority leader personally, to describe Reid’s leadership style. He paused, seemingly to think, before answering.
“I’m not sure he has one,” Coburn said.
Coburn is careful with his words. Reid may be unreliable, but he also instills fear in the hearts of Republicans and Democrats alike. Baucus, who would rightfully be angry over his treatment from Reid during the tax extenders episode, declined to be interviewed for this story. So, too, did Reid’s fellow Nevada senator, Republican Dean Heller, who has even more reason to dislike him. Last year, Reid took advantage of his position as majority leader to try (unsuccessfully, it turned out) to sink Heller’s campaign.
Throughout 2012, Heller pushed an Internet gambling bill popular in Nevada—popular enough that Reid himself claimed to support it. The Senate took little action on the bill throughout the summer, and meanwhile, Heller was engaged in a tough campaign against Democrat Shelley Berkley. In September, Reid abruptly called Heller to let him know he would be bringing the Internet gambling bill to the floor within a day. He offered an ultimatum to Heller: Secure 15 additional GOP votes within the next few hours or the bill would die. Heller scrambled but couldn’t deliver the votes. The bill failed, as if by Reid’s design.
“It’s really a failure in leadership of my friend,” Reid told reporters. In the meantime, David Krone, Reid’s chief of staff, gathered several reporters for Las Vegas-based news outlets into his office. Republicans on the Hill say the 45-year-old staffer is abrasive and difficult to work with but a faithful executor of Reid’s schemes. Krone provided reporters with a series of private emails between himself and Heller’s former chief of staff, Mac Abrams. The emails showed what looked like a disorganized effort to corral Republican support for the bill, though Heller and Republicans dispute the characterization. Nevertheless, the ploy succeeded in embarrassing Heller, earning him a bit of bad press back home in Nevada. In November, he prevailed over Berkley, but the Internet gambling law both Heller and Reid wanted remains dead. The incident was classic Reid: short-term political gain at the expense of a policy victory. It’s a testament to Reid’s influence, though, that Heller, a Republican who won’t face reelection until 2018, is now unwilling to publicly cross his rival.
Not even President Obama has escaped the wrath of Reid—or, to be more precise, that of Reid’s minion Krone. As Bob Woodward recounted in his book on the debt-ceiling negotiations of 2011, The Price of Politics, Krone traveled with Reid to the White House that summer during the intense debate over extending the debt limit. In the Oval Office, Reid began explaining the outline of a $2.7 trillion debt limit extension before turning it over to Krone to explain the details. Reid’s plan included another round of defense cuts that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell had “secretly pledged to honor.” Obama dismissed the idea, saying he didn’t trust Boehner and McConnell. Krone, Woodward writes, “either would not or could not conceal his anger” at the president:
Reporters covering Congress seem more interested in getting along with Reid than in critically examining his reign. Members of the Capitol Hill press corps regularly pass along as simple fact Reid’s assertion that the Republican minority has slowed down activity in the Senate and hardly ever challenge him on it. At a recent press conference, I asked Reid to explain his tactic of blocking unwanted amendments and rushing through debate. Republicans say Reid thereby stymies meaningful debate in the Senate, so they often use parliamentary procedures to protest. Why, I asked, had he decided to gum up the amendment process in the first place? Reid dodged:
“We have to spend 8 to 10 Senate days, that’s a couple weeks, to get on a bill,” he said. “Because [Republicans] virtually oppose every time we try to give a bill a motion to proceed. That wastes 10 days. With that 10 days, if we didn’t have to do that, we could be on a bill, there could be amendments. We’ve arrived at a point where we don’t have time to do that.”
It was a circular response. Reid has decided to limit GOP amendments because of the possibility Republicans will block bills to protest Reid’s practice of limiting GOP amendments? When I shouted a follow-up at the end of the press conference—“Do you think you should open the amendment process, that it might earn you some goodwill with the Republicans?”—Reid slowly turned, looked at me, and refused to answer. “Grumpy!” a photographer noted.
Reid can be curt to reporters, which may explain some of the reluctance from the press to ruffle his feathers. In 2009, a reporter asked him to clarify a statement he had made on the Senate floor. Reid told the reporter to “turn up your hearing aid.”
“It was clear for those of us who understand English,” Reid sniped. He once introduced Politico reporter Manu Raju to an aide as “the biggest pest in Washington.”
Amid the fiscal cliff negotiations late last year, Reid sparred with a young reporter over President Obama’s plan, acting as if he had no knowledge of the plan’s existence. “The president’s fiscal cliff plan, the White House plan—why hasn’t that been put up for a vote yet in the Senate, and are you planning on putting it up for a vote?” the reporter asked.
“I’m sorry, what?” Reid said, looking confused.
“The White House proposal that they floated around last week on Capitol Hill?” the reporter repeated.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, okay?” Reid responded, a small smile emerging from his lips.
The reporter was undeterred. “The White House’s plan, the Treasury secretary’s—.” Reid cut him off with a jab.
“Do you know what the plan is?” Reid challenged. The press corps started to giggle at the back and forth.
“The plan that includes revenue and includes—.” Reid cut him off again.
“What kind of revenue?”
“The top 2 percent—,” the reporter shot back, though he was starting to look unsure of himself.
“And what else does he have in it?”
“The debt limit authority, as well,” came the response. Reid didn’t let up.
“And what else?”
Oh boy. “$1.6 trillion in total.” The reporter was losing his footing. “And the stimulus, $200 million—.”
“I think it was 50,” Reid said, practically winking as the press burst out laughing. The reporter backed down, defeated.
Despite his mastery of the press, which, let’s face it, is mostly on Reid’s side politically anyway, there are some signs his power may be waning after six years as leader. During the protracted fiscal cliff negotiations, he accused Republican House speaker John Boehner of running a “dictatorship.” Boehner reportedly responded, likely echoing the sentiments of many on Capitol Hill, by telling Reid to “go f— yourself.” Republican leader Mitch McConnell practically said the same thing when he abandoned talks with Reid on the fiscal cliff and sought a more willing negotiating partner at the White House: Vice President Joe Biden. And when Reid said recently that the devastation to the Gulf Coast in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina was “nothing in comparison” to the damage done to the Northeast by Hurricane Sandy, Louisiana Republican senator David Vitter was indignant enough to call Reid an “idiot.”
But for the most part, Reid remains secure as majority leader—more formidable than ever. At first glance, he doesn’t look the part. He’s short and thin, almost gaunt. His large hands, worn down by his years working in the Nevada mines as a young teenager, protrude awkwardly from his skinny suit jacket. Reid doesn’t walk confidently so much as shuffle, a little slower these days since he’s suffered from mini-strokes over the last several years. His voice is soft and pinched, sometimes barely rising above a whisper. Capitol Hill reporters grumble about straining to hear him at press conferences. Ironically, it may have been this perception of Reid—a quiet, nebbish pushover—that elevated him to his position as Democratic leader.
In 2004, after Tom Daschle of South Dakota lost reelection, the big egos of the Democratic caucus—Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Chris Dodd—weren’t eager to take on the thankless role of Democratic leader. But neither did they want to see any of the others in the position. Reid, the seemingly inoffensive Westerner, made sense as a successor. For one thing, as minority whip he was next in line. Plus, there was little risk he would overshadow any of the Democratic stars in the Senate, several of whom were angling for presidential runs in 2008. Reid swiftly became the consensus choice of the caucus and was elected leader with ease.
Reid’s experience as minority whip has proven helpful in solidifying his support as leader. “As the Democratic whip, I probably knew and understood the caucus better than anybody else,” he wrote in his 2008 memoir, The Good Fight. Reid knows what makes each senator tick: their motivations and their weaknesses. And he’s increasingly popular with both his 55-member caucus and the liberal base of the Democratic party. As that caucus has grown more liberal, the supposedly “pro-gun, pro-life” Democrat from Nevada has moved left to match. Intensely and aggressively antiwar after 2004 (though he voted for going to war in Iraq), he has an enthusiastic following among some of the caucus’s most left-wing members. Younger liberals—Jeff Merkley from Oregon, Mark Udall from Colorado, and Tom Udall from New Mexico—see Reid as their champion, particularly on revising the filibuster rules to deprive Republicans of a procedural tool that’s useful to Senate minorities. And Reid is generous to those loyalists. Patty Murray of Washington, for instance, had a lackluster career after entering the Senate in 1993, but her devotion to Reid earned her a spot on the leadership team as conference secretary when Democrats took control in 2007, and Murray now serves as chair of the powerful budget committee.
Reid has maintained favor with the moderate wing, as well. Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, not exactly a foot soldier for Reid, began last year in a difficult spot for reelection. Reid’s political action committee, Majority PAC, spent more than a million dollars running ads in the Republican primary against her most formidable potential opponent, John Brunner. Brunner lost the primary to Todd Akin, who within weeks would sink his campaign with his “legitimate rape” comments. Another red-state Democrat, Jon Tester of Montana, got help from Majority PAC, which ran $3 million worth of ads against his Republican challenger. Reid also championed the Sportsmen’s Act, a bill supported by the National Rifle Association that would expand federal hunting and fishing land and was popular with Montanans. There was significant movement on the bill prior to Election Day, though it ground to a halt thereafter. No matter, since Tester won handily, and Reid retained another ally. Business as usual.
Reid’s rise to become one of the most powerful men in Washington may seem incredible, but he’s a natural fighter. He was born and raised in Searchlight, a tiny mining settlement in Nevada’s southern tip. His parents drank heavily, and his father would beat Reid, his brother, and their mother. At age 14, Reid and his younger brother Larry saw their father hit their mother and decided to do something about it. “We jumped him,” Reid wrote in 2008. “I took him high, Larry took him low, and we pinned him to the floor. He was like a rock.” Reid took up boxing in college “so that I could channel my brawling instincts into something more respectable.”
That taste for brawling has characterized Reid’s long career in Democratic politics since his first election, in 1968, to the Nevada state assembly. Gubernatorial candidate Mike O’Callaghan—also his high school teacher, boxing coach, and mentor—chose Reid to run on the ticket for lieutenant governor in 1970. Reid served nearly four years as lieutenant governor before losing two subsequent elections: one for Senate, to Republican Paul Laxalt, and another for Las Vegas mayor. But Reid made a name for himself as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission in the late 1970s. In 1978, a crooked businessman named Jack Gordon (who later married La Toya Jackson) tried to bribe Reid to approve licenses for two new types of casino game. After alerting the FBI, Reid set up a meeting in his office with Gordon and his business partner as a sting. When Gordon produced the money for the bribe, the federal agents burst into the office to make the arrest. Here’s how Reid described the episode in his book:
Reid would go on to serve two terms in the House of Representatives before winning the Senate race to succeed Laxalt, who retired in 1986. Since that campaign, he’s faced tough reelection fights in 1998 and 2010, only to prevail when many predicted he wouldn’t. Rivals underestimate his toughness at their peril.
“He can be uncommonly mean,” says a Senate colleague, and Republicans frequently get the Reid treatment. In 2008, he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “I can’t stand John McCain.” Last year, Reid claimed that an anonymous investor in Bain Capital had told him that Mitt Romney had not paid taxes in 10 years. “His poor father must be so embarrassed about his son,” Reid told the Huffington Post. A Mormon, Reid said Romney “sullied” the religion.
Even his ostensible allies aren’t spared Reid’s nastiness. At a recent Capitol press conference with fellow Senate Democratic leaders, Reid joked about New York senator Chuck Schumer’s weight. Schumer was displaying a chart on a small piece of paper to the gathered members of the media. “I was told in second grade to hold it under your chin,” Schumer said.
“Chuck, you’re a lot older, though,” Reid broke in. “Which chin?”
In a December floor speech meant to honor retiring senator Kent Conrad, Reid went off script with a long, rambling aside about the North Dakota Democrat’s lavish treatment of his dog. “He is renowned for his dog,” Reid said. “He loves that little dog named Dakota. It is a fluffy white dog, a bichon frise. Everywhere Kent goes, Dakota is with him. They love that dog like only people can love animals.” Reid said he used to question how people could spend money on pets until his own daughter spent money on a beloved cat.
“I don’t question it anymore,” Reid concluded. “If my daughter feels that strongly about a cat, I am going to stop criticizing people who spend money on animals.” Conrad, who is sensitive to cracks about his frou-frou dog, was reportedly embarrassed.
Reid’s rhetoric runs the gamut from petty to insulting. In late 2008, he praised the new Capitol Visitor Center at the building’s dedication. “In the summertime, because [of] the high humidity and how hot it gets here, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol,” he said. During his reelection in 2010, Reid told a group of Latino voters in Nevada, “I don’t know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican.” In April 2007, he said publicly that the war in Iraq was “lost”—right as American troops were implementing the counterinsurgency strategy that turned the tide. Reid has called his own staff “far too fat” and a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission a “first-class rat,” a “miserable liar,” a “shit stirrer,” and a “tool of the nuclear industry.”
Reid has referred to New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand as the “hottest” senator and to Delaware senator Chris Coons as his “pet.” He’s praised Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson’s “mop of real hair.” “I mean, he has hair like a 15-year-old,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “So I have to acknowledge, I’m a little envious of his hair.” He lauded Barack Obama as a presidential candidate in 2008 because Obama is “light-skinned” and doesn’t speak in a “Negro dialect.” “Unless he wanted to have one,” Reid added, for good measure.
Conservatives may consider Reid a buffoon, but he’s been an indisputable success. His knowledge of Senate procedure and political savvy have allowed him to outmaneuver the Republican minority and block legislation from the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. Reid has led the charge to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He helped pass one of the largest federal spending programs in history, the 2009 stimulus package. And under Reid’s leadership, Congress and the president have enacted some of the most prized achievements on the Democratic agenda: Wall Street regulation; repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy; and Obamacare.
But at what cost? In his six years as Democratic majority leader, Reid has done more institutional damage to the Senate than any leader in history. Under his leadership, particularly in the last two years, the Senate has seen some of its most unproductive periods ever. Appropriations bills for national defense, agriculture, and transportation take months, instead of weeks, to pass—but at least they pass. Most legislation is issued directly from the majority leader or his surrogates instead of from the committees, where the parties have to deal with each other. The result has been two years of fruitless debate over partisan bills with little to show for it. The Senate hasn’t passed a budget—one of its most basic functions—since April 29, 2009. But it has been Reid’s abuse of power that has been the most destructive element of his tenure.
In a deliberative body like the Senate, each member has two basic rights: to debate and to amend legislation. Unlike the House, where the majority party controls the debate and the amendment process, individual senators, even those in the minority, have considerable power. In addition, there’s no requirement in the Senate that an amendment be germane to the bill to which it’s attached (with some exceptions). In practice, this means minority senators can use the debate period to bring unrelated issues to the public square, and every senator has the opportunity to say his piece. In order to avoid the excessively long and unproductive debate known as a filibuster, Senate rules allow for the body to invoke cloture—a procedure to end debate on a pending bill or resolution so that the matter can be voted on.
Here’s how the process would normally work. After debate on a legislative matter has been sufficiently conducted and members have had a reasonable period to file amendments, a senator (usually the majority leader) files a cloture motion, on which the Senate votes. With most matters, the motion needs 60 votes to pass. If cloture is invoked, the debate on the bill becomes restricted, and the Senate must vote on the matter within 30 legislative hours. If cloture is defeated, the bill has been effectively filibustered. Simple as that.
But under Reid’s rule, the process is mucked up. Republican senators are often unable to offer amendments as a result of Reid’s tactic of “filling the amendment tree.” In order to block amendments from Republicans—many of which might force Democrats to take tough votes on controversial issues like guns and abortion—Reid files dummy amendments that fill the slate. Once cloture is invoked and no more amendments can be offered, Reid simply retracts his dummy amendments.
Reid will also file cloture on the same day debate on a bill begins—sometimes even before the first word of debate has been uttered. Same-day cloture filings had increased over the last decade, particularly under the leadership of Republican Bill Frist, but under Reid, the practice has exploded. Between 1993 and 2006, same-day cloture filings numbered 219; in the last six years, Reid and his surrogates have exceeded that number, filing same-day cloture motions 223 times. What’s more, Reid identifies these preliminary cloture motions as Republican filibusters. By Reid’s logic, he must preemptively invoke cloture in order to avoid the certainty of a filibuster from the Republicans.
The charge of a rump caucus of Republicans wantonly abusing the filibuster has been a useful cudgel for Reid, but all of this may soon change. Those newer liberals, particularly Merkley and the Udalls, have been pressuring Reid to change the cloture rules to make it more difficult for the minority party to filibuster. To do so, Reid would likely have to impose the so-called nuclear option, changing the rules by way of a simple majority rather than the three-fifths majority usually required. It’s something he’s done before, though few noticed.
In October 2011, the Senate was debating a bill on currency exchange rates when Reid filed for cloture, which passed. Republicans, frustrated with Reid’s blocking of amendments, moved seven times to suspend the rules to allow votes on their amendments (a practice not unheard of). Reid responded with a point of order, arguing the motions to suspend were dilatory and out of order. The presiding officer, at the recommendation of the parliamentarian, ruled that the Republicans’ motions were in order, so Reid, in an unprecedented move, appealed the chair’s ruling. That meant Reid got a simple majority vote to overturn the ruling and change the Senate rules regarding motions to suspend. Republicans didn’t press the point, but the precedent for Reid’s unilaterally changing the Senate rules had been set.
That’s what Republicans and even some institutionalist Democrats fear will happen with Reid’s promise to change the filibuster. Old bulls like Carl Levin have expressed skepticism about the plan. As one Democratic senator wrote just five years ago, “If some [in the majority] had their way, and overruled the Senate parliamentarian, and the rules of the Senate were illegally changed so that the majority ruled tyrannically, then the Senate—billed to all as the world’s greatest deliberative body—would cease to exist.”
The man who wrote that warning was none other than Reid himself.
Inside the ornate corridors of the U.S. Capitol outside the Senate chamber, you can sense the presence of the legendary leaders who once conducted the business of republican government here. Names like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Robert Taft, and Lyndon Johnson come to mind. Their portraits and busts peer out from the walls, keeping watch over the latest generation of stewards of the American experiment. Statesmen, compromisers, tough negotiators, ideologues—these men left lasting marks on the Senate and American politics.
Harry Reid, it’s safe to say, is not one of them.
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.