Harry Reid to retire in 2016: 'perfect leader for a polarized Congress'

Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader, said he would not seek reelection in 2016 – a reversal from an earlier assertion in late January.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington in this March 17. Senator Reid said on Friday that he will not seek re-election next year, leaving Congress after 30 years and complicating Democrats' efforts to retake control of the Senate in 2016.

It is no accident that Senate minority leader Harry Reid began his YouTube retirement announcement on Friday with a reference to his bruised-up face and to his youth as a boxer.

No metaphor is more apt to describe the political life of the Democratic senator from Nevada – one of the most attacked and pugilistic politicians on Capitol Hill.

In the era of the permanent campaign, “he was the perfect leader for a polarized Congress – combative, tough, unyielding at times,” says Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. 

Senator Reid said he would not seek reelection in 2016 – a reversal from an earlier assertion in late January. He explained that he had had time to “ponder” since an exercising accident on New Year’s Day that severely bruised his face and injured his eye, for which he is still wearing protective glasses.

“We have to make sure that the Democrats take control of the Senate again. And I feel it is inappropriate for me to soak up all those resources ... when I could be devoting those resources to the caucus, and that’s what I intend to do,” said Reid in a statement. He told The Washington Post that he has endorsed Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York to succeed him as leader after he retires.

Republicans immediately pounced.

"Senator Harry Reid has decided to hang up his rusty spurs. Not only does Reid instantly become irrelevant and a lame duck, his retirement signals that there is no hope for the Democrats to regain control of the Senate," Ward Baker, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement.

Republicans now have the majority in the Senate, controlling 54 of 100 seats. In 2016, they will have to defend 24 seats, while Democrats will only have to defend 10. 

The senator’s battles go back to his tough childhood in Searchlight, Nev., south of Las Vegas. His father was a hard-rock miner and alcoholic who committed suicide. To make ends meet, his mother did the laundry for a nearby bordello, according to the National Journal’s Almanac of American Politics. As a teenager, Reid hitchhiked 40 miles to high school in Henderson. There, according to the almanac, his civics teacher and boxing coach became his political mentor.

After law school, he was elected to the Nevada Assembly, and later was elected lieutenant governor. Like many US senators, he used a stint in the House as a springboard to the Senate, where he has served for nearly 30 years. Few of his elections have been cakewalks.

As Reid acknowledges, he’s no great orator (journalists have to lean in close at press conferences to hear his whispery voice), nor is he a policy visionary. But he is highly skilled at parliamentary maneuvering and at behind-the-scenes deal-making.

Reid played a key role in persuading former Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords to leave the GOP in 2001 and tip the Senate to Democratic control. He supported filibusters against George W. Bush appellate-judge nominees – then read for nine hours from his memoir when Republicans retaliated with all-night sessions in November 2003.

But the Nevadan is best known for his years as majority leader, which he assumed in 2006, and his association with the Obama administration – helping to pass the economic stimulus and, of course, the Affordable Care Act.

“He has done what no majority leader has done and that is pass comprehensive health reform,” says Jim Manley, Reid’s former spokesman.

In November 2013, Reid blew up Senate rules as a way to get past Republican blocking of President Obama’s executive appointments.

As majority leader, Reid’s chief concern was to make sure Democrats retained control of the Senate. By essentially closing down the amendment process, he protected his members from dangerous Republican “messaging,” or “gotcha” amendments, designed to make Democrats look bad at election time.

Some say he went too far, hurting his members in red and purple states by denying them an opportunity to show distance from the administration and party line. Republicans maintain that was one reason behind Democratic losses in states such as Alaska and Arkansas in 2014. After the election, at least six Democrats voted against Reid as minority leader. 

“Did he carry it too far? That’s a matter of judgment. In individual cases, perhaps he did,” says Mr. Baker. “But a floor leader who would leave his caucus open to mischievous amendments from the other side wouldn’t be doing his job.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.