After the GOP sweep last week, the only place in town Democrats may still be able to slow or stall President Bush’s conservative agenda is in the Senate. And to lead the effort, they’re backing a backstage master of parliamentary infighting, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid.
“Reid is a kind of Dickensian figure. He haunts the floor. He’s like the hovering spirit of the Democrats,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University who specializes in Congress.
“He is constantly on the alert, waiting for an opportunity to pull some parliamentary sleight of hand.”
In the months ahead, Reid will need all that wizardry and more.
Tuesday’s elections cost the Democrats, already a minority, four more seats in the Senate, giving the Republicans 55 seats to the Democrats’ 44. The GOP also increased its advantage in the House. And the president has vowed to push hard for his ideas on revamping Social Security, rewriting the tax code and other issues.
One measure of how daunting the job of minority leader looks may be seen in how easily Reid persuaded his Democratic colleagues to let him have it.
The senior senator from Nevada, who has held the No. 2 post of Democratic whip, locked up enough support for the top job hours after Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota conceded defeat in his effort to win a fourth term in the Senate.
The Senate to which Reid returns in January will have fewer moderates of any stripe.
And it is likely to become an even more fiercely partisan battleground.
The uncompromisingly conservative line that Republicans took during the campaign has sharpened the divisions between the two parties. And, with such core issues as taxes and entitlement programs for the elderly expected to be on the line, the stakes will be higher.
But the grim political landscape facing Democrats did not keep Reid, 64, from laying claim to the leadership after serving six years as Daschle’s lieutenant.
From his home in Searchlight, Nev. -- the gold-mining hamlet where he was born and reared -- Reid placed a consolation call to his old friend at 3 a.m. Wednesday. By then Daschle had conceded, becoming the first party leader in the Senate in more than half a century to lose his reelection bid.
By 6 a.m., Reid was making calls to colleagues still shell-shocked by the party’s across-the-board losses in the national elections, lining up their support for his candidacy to replace Daschle.
So aggressive was Reid’s bid for the post that his most likely rival, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), endorsed him Wednesday evening.
“Getting into a contest with Harry didn’t make any sense to me,” Dodd told reporters.
Clinching the job was easy for Reid. Using it to help revive the fortunes of Democrats will be more difficult.
As whip, Reid has preferred spending hours on the Senate floor, employing the chamber’s arcane rules in fights with Republicans or fellow Democrats rather than facing television cameras. Known as an indefatigable worker, Reid has a reputation for outlasting or outmaneuvering his opponents on the floor.
Now, he must not only develop a strategy for dealing with an energized GOP in the Senate, he will be called upon to help devise and project a new vision for his party nationwide.
In a conference call with reporters the day after the elections, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D-Calif.) said that she had supported Dodd two years ago when he unsuccessfully challenged Daschle for the leadership, but this time she was backing Reid.
“I think Harry has done the work -- he’s put in the time, he’s a very good floor leader, very fast, very smart,” she said. “I’m convinced he’s the logical choice at this moment.”
The party, Feinstein said, must find a way to expand its base, and Reid could help do that.
“With changing demographics, I think the West is the place Democrats should turn their attention to,” she said. “We need to expand the Democratic platform ... to the western part of the United States and to build a bulwark of strength that would equal the Northeast, so that geographically we can increase strength.”
Some Democrats were concerned that Reid, like Daschle, would be politically vulnerable and have less maneuverability because he comes from a heavily Republican state.
And on Friday the party appeared to have settled on a liberal from a solidly Democratic state to take Reid’s place as whip: Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, a spokesman for the more liberal wing of the party, announced that he had secured enough support to ensure that he would become Reid’s lieutenant.
Durbin would bring an ability to communicate the party’s message and forcefully rebut Republicans, Democrats said. Reid, who has worked primarily inside the Senate, is less accustomed to being a public spokesman for the party.
Republicans said they hoped Reid’s elevation was a signal from Democrats that they might play a more constructive role in the more lopsided Senate. Reid, who opposes abortion, is seen as more conservative than Daschle and less confrontational in his personal style.
He voted for Bush’s tax cuts, and in 1991, was one of a handful of Democrats who voted to authorize the Persian Gulf War. He voted again to authorize the use of force against Iraq in October 2002. He has frequently opposed environmental groups on Western mining issues.
“We have an excellent personal relationship,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, (R-Ky.), the Republican whip who serves as lieutenant to Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. “I’m very optimistic that he’ll be good to work with. I have always found him gracious, friendly and honest. Those are very important characteristics in the Senate. You have to develop trust in people.”
But former Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) cautioned that Republicans would be making a mistake if they thought Reid would fight any less than Daschle did.
“Harry Reid is often underestimated,” Bumpers said. He went up against Reid time and again in the Senate, Bumpers recalled, when the Arkansas senator sought to impose tighter environmental regulations on Western mines and to force mine owners to pay royalties on minerals extracted from federally owned lands.
Reid vehemently opposed such reforms but “senators would vote for him even if they didn’t understand the issue,” Bumpers said, “just because they liked Harry and he was so tough, so tenacious.”
Reid also played a key role in helping to persuade Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont to leave the Republican Party in May 2001 and become an independent, a move that handed control of the chamber briefly to Democrats.
A member of the powerful appropriations committee, Reid has been reelected three times, partly because he has used his position on the committee to secure federal funds for Nevada and has been a defender of the state’s mining and gambling industries.
Even as a conservative Republican defeated Daschle Tuesday night and Nevada voted for Bush, Reid was coasting to his fourth term with 60% of the vote.
He and his wife, Landra, watched the election returns in the home they built a few years ago in Searchlight.
The son of a laundrywoman and a gold miner, an alcoholic who committed suicide by shooting himself at the age of 56, Reid grew up in a shack with a tin roof and attended a two-room school.
“My dad had killed himself at home in Searchlight,” Reid said in a speech on the Senate floor in July during a debate about the causes of suicide.
“For a long time, I was embarrassed. I did not know how to handle that. I, of course, acknowledged my dad was dead, but like most people who deal with suicide, it takes a while to accept that.”
Reid left Searchlight to attend high school in a larger town 40 miles away. When he graduated from high school, local merchants took up a collection to help him go to college. Later, while he attended George Washington University Law School, Reid worked nights as a Capitol Hill police officer.
He served in the House of Representatives for two terms before being elected to the Senate in 1986.
Last year, he was featured in a Times series about lawmakers whose relatives or their firms received hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying and consulting fees from business corporations, trade groups and other special interests that the senators helped in Congress.
In Reid’s case, nearly every major industry in Nevada -- from gambling to gold mining to real estate development -- hired one of his sons or his son-in-law for lobbying or legal work. And Reid has a long record of supporting and protecting those interests in his home state.
Reid banned his relatives from personally lobbying his office after The Times raised questions about their role in legislation that Reid had pushed.
But he said he earlier had asked the Senate Ethics Committee, on which he serves, about lobbying by family members and had been told there were no restrictions.
After the Times series was published, Reid called for the Senate to review the rules on lobbying to see if changes in the rules were needed. So far, the ethics panel has apparently taken no action.
Times Staff Writers Chuck Neubauer and Richard T. Cooper contributed to this article.