The Magazine

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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“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:

The agents rushed in, and then I lost my temper. How could they think they could do this to me? I was so angry that I went at Jack Gordon. “You son of a bitch, you tried to bribe me!” I lunged and got him in a choke hold. I was in a rage. The FBI agents had to pull me off of Gordon. And then it was over.

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.

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