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Can Harry Reid tame battle instincts as Senate minority leader?

Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) chat on their way to a September briefing. McConnell will assume Reid's majority leader post after Tuesday's election.
(Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is not one to run from a fight.

The tenacious Nevadan pulled himself from dusty, desert poverty to the corridors of power, and once punched his future father-in-law after being denied a date with the woman who would become his bride.

Taming that battle instinct and returning to his ‎roots as a shrewd deal-maker is the challenge facing the Democrat as he finds himself leading a disheartened minority party whose senators are clamoring for change after the Republican electoral sweep.

Will the former amateur boxer, who is often singularly blamed for recent congressional gridlock, be able to partner with incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John A. Boehner as they take control of a new Republican-led Congress? Or will he resort to the very obstinacy he has derided in Republicans over the last six years in order to protect Democratic priorities?

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“I think he’s open to a new approach,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat.

Ever since President Obama was elected, the Senate under Reid’s leadership has provided both the muscle for the administration’s initiatives and, later, the safety net for blocking House GOP attempts to repeal Obamacare, slash budgets and undo environmental and immigration actions.

Reid will remain crucial on both fronts. Despite Republican post-election gloats about “firing Harry Reid,” ‎the lawmaker retains a powerful ability to either gum up the Senate or let legislation flow. Because the new GOP Senate majority is narrow, McConnell will need Reid’s support to reach the 60-vote threshold required to overcome filibusters of Senate bills.

“Clearly, he’s going to have some power,” Boehner conceded Thursday.

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Reid will also have to decide how far to go in protecting the president’s policies. After this week’s electoral losses, many Democrats blamed Obama’s unpopularity and complained about Reid’s past insistence on providing political cover for the White House and senators facing tough reelections. That usually meant using his position to block Republican amendments on healthcare or energy, and keeping politically charged GOP bills from reaching the Senate floor.

As Reid considers his own future — he turns 75 this year — he’ll need to balance what’s good for Obama with what’s good for Senate Democrats and for the party’s 2016 presidential nominee — and, of course, what’s good for Reid.

“There may be more synergy between the president and congressional Republican leaders because Obama wants to build a legacy and Republicans want to prove they’re the gang that can shoot straight, and it’s unclear right now how Democrats feel about that,” said Jim Kessler, senior vice president at Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank.

Reid has signaled he’s not going anywhere. He fully expects to run for reelection in 2016 — and to take back the Senate at the same time, thanks to a favorable electoral map in which many vulnerable Republicans will face reelection. Senate Democrats who are next in line for Reid’s job all pledged their support this week for him to serve another term as their leader.

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Reid, no stranger to serving in the minority, must decide whether to filibuster the GOP agenda and deny McConnell credit for breaking congressional deadlock, or allow some measures to pass in a nod toward bipartisanship and to prevent Democrats from being painted as the new obstructionists.

“If given half a chance to compromise, Sen. Reid will be more than willing to do so,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former senior aide to both Reid and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. “But it’s hard to imagine he’s going to be given much of a chance. If you think that the takeaway [from the election] is that the House Republican conference will compromise more, you need to get your head examined.”

Likely, Reid will take a case-by-case approach, hoping that Republicans will prove unable to overcome their own internal party divisions to agree on legislative proposals or that there will be no public appetite for what the GOP is offering.

“If past is prologue, in the past, Sen. Reid gave Republicans just enough rope to hang themselves, and they did,” Kessler said. “That might be his plan. … There will be no freebies for Republicans. Everything they want is going to come with a price.”

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Republican measures to curb environmental regulations or tighten welfare rules, for example, could find some Democratic support. Fast-tracking trade negotiations and doling out corporate tax breaks will require some concessions to Democrats. Repealing the Affordable Care Act is a nonstarter.

Reid will have to navigate some of his own party’s divisions as well. Post-election soul-searching is putting a spotlight on splinters between the party’s liberal wing and its moderates. There’s a growing sentiment among rank-and-file senators that Reid should loosen his grip and allow them to vote their conscience without retribution — even on Republican proposals that may be politically painful for some Democrats.

“Harry has operated like a doting father over adolescent children,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). “But we’re grown-ups. I’m hoping that old Harry can come out again. He has to understand a lot of us are fighters too. We had to fight to get there.”

Durbin acknowledged the unrest in the ranks, but noted that other senators appreciated Reid’s efforts to protect them from difficult votes. “Privately, I’ve had people call me — beg me — not to [have to] vote,” Durbin said. “He’s done what he thought was in the best interest of the caucus.”

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In many ways, serving again as minority leader — a post Reid last held in 2006 — may enable him to return to the backroom negotiations he relishes.

“We’re not going to ambush them,” Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said of his boss’ approach to Republicans. “But we’re not going to roll over.”

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

Twitter: @lisamascaro

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