Harry Reid: A sculptor of partisanship, who was also molded by it

When he was first elected in 1982, compromise was not a dirty word. That's changed dramatically – and so has Senator Reid.

Molly Riley/AP
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, pictured here on Capitol Hill after the Senate Policy Luncheon on Tuesday, Nov. 29, in Washington, is stepping down after 34 years in Congress.

When retiring Sen. Harry Reid was first elected to the House in 1982, Ronald Reagan was president and Tip O’Neill was the speaker. It was the much-vaunted era of bipartisan deal-making between the Republican president and Democratic speaker – political opposites, but also friends.

Back then, the newbie from Nevada was a conservative Democrat who swelled with pride over meeting Reagan. “Independent Like Nevada” was an early campaign slogan.

How politics have changed. On Thursday, Senator Reid delivered a farewell speech of nearly 90 minutes after three decades in the Senate – a dozen of them as the Senate's pugilistic majority and minority leader. Like his party, he’s turned left and more partisan, and has been vilified by Republicans for his fighting leadership style.

His sparring partner, majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, paid tribute to Reid by dwelling on his hard-scrabble years growing up in Nevada; on Reid's long marriage, and on the two leaders' joint love of baseball – a graceful way around their turbulent time at political loggerheads. Indeed, Republicans, who have veered hard right, can't wait to see him go.

“For me, his time here has been one of failure, obstruction, and gridlock,” pronounced Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming on Tuesday, as GOP leaders held their weekly session with reporters. The Republican may have couched this view as his own, but its purpose as a public parting shot was unmistakable.

And how did Reid react, when, moments later he stepped to the same microphones, presumably for his last press conference?

“I was never running to be popular with Republicans,” he said. “I’ve had a job to do with President Obama. I’ve done the best that I can. And I don’t have any regrets whatsoever about my efforts to push forward a Democratic agenda.”

Gone the days of bipartisan socializing

The arc of Harry Reid’s career in Washington is the arc of politics in America.

It started in the 1980s when reaching across the aisle was more common than today, despite sharp ideological differences. It rose through a period of general cohesiveness at the turn of the decade, when the Berlin Wall fell and Operation Desert Storm repelled Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

But the curve of political workability plunged with the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998, followed by the furor over George W. Bush’s Iraq War and the descent into hyper-partisanship and gridlock that characterized the Obama years.

In November, voters attempted to dynamite the political establishment in Washington with the surprise presidential election of celebrity billionaire Donald Trump, a Republican without a predictable ideology.

Where the political trajectory will go next is anybody’s guess, but Reid reflected fondly on his early years in Washington when asked about it at his Tuesday press conference.

“We can look back with pleasure at those days when Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan would have a drink after work and sing songs and reflect upon even better times as they saw them,” he said.

Historians warn about interpreting those years as a golden era of political altruism.

True, lawmakers actually still lived in Washington and regularly socialized, which made it easier to work together. It helped enormously that O’Neill and Reagan developed a friendship. But the speaker cut deals with the president because he didn’t have enough Democratic votes to fight him.

Midway through Reagan’s second term, in 1986, Reid ran for the Senate and won. At that time, the chamber was “filled with master legislators,” recalls Jim Manley, Reid’s former spokesman, who previously worked for the liberal lion from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy. “If you worked at it, you could form compromises with Republicans.”

In Reid’s view, the turning point came in the era of Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose “Republican Revolution” in 1994 swept the GOP to control of both houses midway through Bill Clinton’s first term.

“The Gingrich era … poisoned the Congress very, very much,” said Reid at his press conference. Exhibit A: The first impeachment of a president since 1868.

And yet, in 1999, when Reid became the No. 2 Democrat to leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota – a position called the “whip,” who is responsible for corralling votes – the Nevadan was still on Republicans’ good side.

Despite the fact that Democrats were the opposition party, Republicans trusted Reid so much that they allowed him to make the procedural moves necessary to wrap up the Senate at night, knowing that he would not abuse that trust, according to Mr. Manley.

Deploying the 'nuclear option' against Republicans

It was as whip that Reid mastered the parliamentary skill and maneuvering that prepared him to take over as minority leader after Senator Daschle’s stunning defeat in 2004.

“He learned that tactics is everything,” says Ross Baker, an expert on Congress at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Unusually, Mr. Baker has three times perched himself as a “scholar in residence” observing Reid's office – the latest this past spring.

The tactics and horse-trading that Reid learned on the floor enabled him to deliver for his state – fighting off for years the proposed nuclear waste repository site at Yucca Mountain, for instance.

And they helped him as majority leader in 2009, when the country was on the verge of economic collapse in the Great Recession, to push through a $787 billion economic stimulus and the Affordable Care Act, which got not a single Republican vote.

For Reid, those are proud legislative achievements, as well as his standing shoulder-to-shoulder with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) of California to stop the privatization of Social Security as proposed by President Bush in 2005.

But his political legacy is without question his highly controversial decision as majority leader to blow up Senate rulemaking. In 2013, Democrats unilaterally decided to strip the minority’s right to filibuster a president’s appointees to federal courts and executive positions. Only Supreme Court nominees – and also legislation – are still subject to a 60-vote blocking threshold.

Deployment of this “nuclear option” has wounded the chamber’s ability to function as a deliberative body, sometimes explained as the saucer to the tea cup that is the House, where majority rules and passions run over. Reid's decision to drop that bomb is perhaps the best illustration of his overriding character as a “fighter,” as his No. 2, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois describes it.

Tough childhood

Reid’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 nearby brothels.

In his farewell speech, he mentioned his pride in saving up to buy false teeth for his mother, who had lost hers due to an accident. This, and other health needs for his impoverished family, help explain why he's been such "an avid supporter" of Obamacare, he said.

As a teenager, Reid hitchhiked 40 miles to high school in Henderson. There his civics teacher and boxing coach – Reid became locally known as a middleweight boxer – became his political mentor.

After law school, he was elected to the Nevada Assembly, and later was elected lieutenant governor. He was appointed Nevada’s gaming commissioner, and then it was on to Washington. 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 can block a punch, protecting his caucus from dangerous Republican “messaging” or “gotcha” votes, as well as deliver one. The senator is known for his indelicate comments, calling the second President Bush “a loser” and “a liar.” 

The filibuster

Reid has often defended his decision to “go nuclear,” justifying it as the only way to break through heavy use of the filibuster by obstructionist Republicans – the same criticism Republicans level at Democrats.

He was particularly frustrated by his inability to get Obama’s federal judges confirmed, particularly to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals – the second most powerful court in the country. Reid was able to confirm three judges to the court after he swept away the filibuster. His move helped stoke GOP retaliation over Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland – who was never granted a hearing.

The nuclear option “changed the Senate, but we had no choice,” said Senator Durbin, talking with reporters earlier this week. In his parting speech, Reid warned that continued overuse of the filibuster will result in its disappearance – greatly changing the institution.

“I do hope my colleagues are able to temper their use of the filibuster, otherwise it will be gone,” he said.

A test is coming when a President Trump will send his Supreme Court nominee to the Senate. Will Democrats filibuster? Will Republicans unilaterally decided to remove that barrier as well?

Given their strong objections to several of Mr. Trump’s cabinet nominees and their inability to block them, “many Democrats are now ruing their decision,” says Mr. Baker.

Reid urged both parties to work together on the filibuster issue. That may be easier now that he’s being replaced by the incoming Democratic leader, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who is respected by Republicans.

Hopefully things will improve, said Durbin, speaking of the difficult working relationship between Senator McConnell and Reid. “I hope that with Senator Schumer there will be a different approach, a new day and new opportunity, but only time will tell.”

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