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A Small Man in a Big Job

The petty reign of Harry Reid

Jan 21, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 18 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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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.

Senator Harry Reid


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.

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