Harry Reid Muscled Obama's Democratic Agenda Through Congress

Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, arrives at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 15, 2013. Senate leaders are poised to reach an agreement as early as today to bring a halt to the fiscal standoff, and now must race the clock to sell the plan to lawmakers before U.S. borrowing authority runs out this week.

Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Barack Obama gave the speeches and set the Democratic Party’s direction. Harry Reid did the dirty work.

Reid, the Senate Democratic leader who announced his retirement Friday, cut the back-room deals and shoved Obama’s legislation through the chamber’s parliamentary thicket. With biting sarcasm and a former boxer’s love for the fight, Reid protected Obama’s legislative accomplishments from Republicans.

The main initiatives of Obama’s first term -- the 2009 economic stimulus, Obamacare and regulation of the financial industry -- all bear Reid’s stamp and were the product of his willingness to charge ahead with little or no Republican support.

Reid’s decision to change the Senate’s rules in 2013 filled the federal courts with Obama nominees who hold lifetime appointments and signaled the transformation of the Senate from clubby to combative.

“He’s been one of my best partners and best friends,” Obama said on a radio show on KNPR in Nevada with Reid on Friday. “Harry is unique. He’s got that curmudgeonly charm that is hard to replace. I’m going to miss him.”

Reid, a thin 75-year-old prone to mumbling and whispering, often stands slightly hunched when he speaks. He’s the rare politician who doesn’t try to appear more physically imposing than he is.

He announced his retirement after health scares both for himself and his wife, Landra. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. He injured himself Jan. 1 in an exercise accident.

Relative Anonymity

Reid worked in relative anonymity outside of Washington and his native Nevada. In a Gallup poll last year, a third of Americans either hadn’t heard of him or had no opinion about him. Reid rarely appeared on cable television or Sunday morning talk shows.

Instead, Reid worked from inside the Capitol, at his apartment in the Ritz-Carlton in Washington and at Democratic fund-raising events across the country, knitting his caucus together and advancing his home-state political machine.

Reid grew up poor near Nevada’s rural southern tip, in a small town called Searchlight about 60 miles from Las Vegas that he mentioned often during his Senate speeches. His early work in the Capitol was as a police officer, and he used the money to put himself through law school.

He was Nevada’s lieutenant governor and then chairman of its gaming commission. Reid returned to Washington after he won a U.S. House seat in 1982 and ascended to the Senate in the 1986 election.

He spent much of his Senate career as a moderate Democrat from a state that voted for Republican presidential candidates in 1988, 2000 and 2004. Earlier in his career, Reid opposed abortion and voted to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Democratic Base

Reid took over the Democratic leadership in 2005 -- he moved up when Tom Daschle lost re-election -- and was rarely out of step with the party’s base.

In 2010, he helped lead the effort to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule for gay members of the military. Just this month, he delayed an anti-human-trafficking measure with broad support because it contains limits on abortion funding.

Reid’s policy legacy includes blocking use of a site at Yucca Mountain in his home state as a nuclear waste repository.

Reid became majority leader in January 2007, after Democrats capitalized on President George W. Bush’s declining popularity to retake the Senate. That promotion made him the most powerful Mormon in the country’s history.

Controlling Agenda

In the Senate, the majority leader controls the agenda, deciding which legislation will come to a vote and what amendments will be allowed. Reid used that power extensively, stopping Republicans from offering alternatives or forcing votes that could embarrass Democrats.

The result was often gridlock. Republicans increasingly blocked legislation, taking advantage of rules requiring Democrats to amass 60 votes out of 100 to advance legislation.

Each side blamed the other for the escalation.

Reid will be remembered as one of the toughest leaders in Senate history, says Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University in Washington.

“For legislative process geeks like me, Reid may be best remembered as someone who really clamped down on the minority, unparalleled in blocking amendments and limiting debate,” Huder said.

In 2009, Democrats expanded their majority, first to 58 votes and then to the magic threshold of 60 when Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania switched parties and Al Franken won after a long vote count in Minnesota.

Obamacare Vote

That cushion allowed Reid to push Obamacare through the Senate without a single Republican vote -- which he did on Christmas Eve 2009 after weeks of negotiations with recalcitrant Democrats including Nebraska’s Ben Nelson.

Then, what looked like a setback -- a Republican victory in a Massachusetts special election -- just gave Reid an opening for more procedural gamesmanship.

In March 2010, Senate Democrats infuriated Republicans by passing the final part of Obama’s health-care law with a budget procedure called reconciliation that required a simple majority vote.

That 2009-2010 era was the “most important period of progressive legislating” since the 1960s, John Kerry, who was a Massachusetts senator in that period, said in a statement Friday.

“None of what he has accomplished was easy or preordained,” said Kerry, now secretary of state. “But again and again, in his own unique way, without flash or puffery, Harry just went out and found the strategy and the votes -- even when everyone said it couldn’t happen.”

Reid Attacks

Reid’s unique way, as Kerry called it, meant that he often put his foot in his mouth.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Reid contended that an anonymous investor in Republican Mitt Romney’s company had told him that Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years. While Romney insisted it was untrue and also released some of his tax returns, Reid didn’t back down. He never produced information to back up his claim.

In 2005, Reid apologized after telling high school students in Las Vegas that President George W. Bush was “a loser.” That year he described Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the Federal Reserve, as “one of the biggest political hacks we have in Washington.”

Once Republicans took over the House of Representatives in January 2011, Reid’s role changed.

Stopping Republicans

He stopped Republicans from making almost any changes to Obamacare or the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law. He won a few concessions, including the January 2013 law that led to tax increases for individuals earning more than $400,000 a year and married couples making more than $450,000.

His most lasting change to the Senate as an institution is the one that infuriated Republicans the most.

After years of Republican delays in confirming Obama’s executive-branch and judicial nominees, Reid in November 2013 decided to drop the 60-vote threshold for confirming most of those nominees. That action was labeled the “nuclear option” because of the partisan discord it was expected to create.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, had said that if Reid went through with threats to change the rule, he would “be remembered as the worst leader of the Senate ever.”

McConnell, of Kentucky, said in a statement Friday that Reid was often underestimated.

“His distinctive grit and determined focus nevertheless saw him through many challenges,” McConnell said. “They continue to make him a formidable opponent today.”

Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says Reid’s tough battles demonstrated two key talents.

“He knew how to build sturdy coalitions from within his caucus, and he never lost sight of his party’s policy goals,” she said. “No box canyons for Harry Reid.”

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