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December 21, 2014

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Reid reflects on a rough year

With Congress’ failures overshadowing its successes in the public eye, Reid faces criticism from all corners

Sen. Harry Reid settles into the chair by the fire in his majority leader's office that is so stately and grand it looks like something Las Vegas would create if ever a faux Washington were added to the Strip.

The first snow of the season has fallen outside his second-floor window, the Washington Monument framed by the sill. He sits close to the fireplace because his neck is stiff from doing his morning push-ups too quickly. Reid still does 120 push-ups and 200 sit-ups each day, but he has condensed his yoga into fewer sessions because there just isn't time. Now, a few days after his 68th birthday, the wear of the job has settled into normalcy.

It's been a long year of long days and nights here, the first time Democrats have been in charge of Congress in 12 years.

On this day alone he hosted a breakfast for a Henderson Democrat running for Congress, met with the White House over the budget stalemate, welcomed a group of Nevada real estate officials concerned about the mortgage crisis -- and ran the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Moving to the majority leader's job this year, after all those years as a leader of the minority, has been “the difference between playing first base for the Yankees and playing it for Basic High School.”

Democrats are ending this year downtrodden after the high of sweeping into power following the 2006 election. Congressional approval ratings are at historic lows -- lower than those of the unpopular president. Though many of their campaign promises became law, much more of the Democratic agenda remains unfulfilled.

Reid repeatedly says he feels good about the work he's done this year. Running the Senate, he says, is not as enjoyable as watching the grandkids play ball, but “it's been a tremendously fascinating, interesting year for me.”

Days after the interview in his office, however, he would concede that “I share the frustration” of having Democratic priorities blocked.

Nevada's first majority leader was barely that, with the Senate thinly divided 51-49. Democrats may have come to Washington believing they had a voter mandate for a new direction, but Republicans had a different opinion. With such a slight majority, Reid's chamber became the place where so much of the Democratic agenda came to die.

The leader on the House side, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, began 2007 with a bold 100-hours agenda, crafted without Reid's knowledge or input. Democrats should have known that nothing passes that quickly in the slower-moving Senate. Any momentum gained by the legislative flurry would soon be lost.

Indeed, the bills arrived in the Senate with a thud.

Senate Republicans soon gave Reid a taste of the partisanship he had dished out in the past and blocked every move. Grand plans for a new energy policy, for example, became skeletons of their original intent. More filibusters were conducted this year than ever in Senate history.

President Bush, whose own ratings reached all-time lows, asserted himself in a way unexpected for an executive with so little clout and whose party was out of power. His willingness to wield the veto pen for the first time in his presidency created an incentive and a safety net for Republicans to obstruct the Democratic agenda.

Reid calls Bush the “most stubborn” official he has ever known.

In this environment, the year became one when politics, not policy, seemed to matter most.

Both sides appeared to abandon any attempt at forming consensus and concentrated on laying a foundation for the 2008 elections. Democrats will say they need to win more Senate seats to accomplish their goals; Republicans will say voters should be wary of Democrats running Washington.

Could a leader other than Reid have achieved a better outcome? Why was he unable or unwilling to get Republicans on board? When he couldn't break through the partisan gridlock, should he have tried to be nicer -- or meaner?

Thomas E. Mann, a constitutional scholar at the Brookings Institution, was among those reluctant to grade Reid on this year alone. Wait and see how Reid performs in coming years, especially with a new president, Mann said.

“I would say incomplete,” he said of this year's performance. “The test of Harry Reid's leadership lies ahead.”

What he brings to the job

Late one night in the Senate this fall, Reid is about to announce that an agreement has been reached to move forward on the Farm Bill after weeks of legislative gridlock. Into the chamber walks a farm state Democrat, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. He pulls her aside. The two stand face to face. One of his hands is on her left shoulder, the other is on her right. She nods, telling him thank you.

That kind of personal interaction with every member of his caucus is what Democratic senators love most about Reid.

He is clearly not the most charismatic public face for the party. His first impression on many voters came election night, when the diminutive Reid rambled a soft-spoken speech onstage at the Democrats' victory party.

Rush Limbaugh dismisses him as “Dingy Harry.” When Reid's whispery voice breaks through, it's often spitting an arrow that gets him into trouble -- calling Bush a “loser” and a “liar,” saying the Iraq war “is lost,” deriding Republican senators as “puppets” of the White House.

As majority leader, future president Lyndon Johnson towered over his colleagues, physically and emotionally, finding their vulnerable buttons and pushing hard, historians tell us. But as majority leader Reid more resembles Mike Mansfield or Bob Dole, a senator among senators -- even if, as Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer wrote in his book, the former boxer will kneecap anyone who crosses him.

Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy explained that at the regular Tuesday policy luncheons, when Reid lays out the week's goals for Democratic senators, “people fall in line and support them, because he has done a lot of work prior to that time in listening and giving people an opportunity to be heard.”

Kennedy says Reid builds consensus better “than any leader that I can remember in my time.”

But even this party unity was no match for the Republicans in the Senate who held together just as tightly, refusing to cave to the Democratic agenda.

Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, the former Republican National Committee chairman who crossed the aisle to try to broker an immigration deal this year, said Reid simply doesn't have enough votes to steamroll the minority.

“We have 49 -- if we were a minority of 39 you could do that,” Martinez said. “At some point it's going to have to dawn on him that Americans are going to want to see things getting done.”

Martinez says Reid is more intent on protecting his members from difficult votes than giving Republicans a chance to shape legislation that could pass.

Only in the final weeks of the session did the backlog of bills pass, as Democrats faced the prospect of ending their first year in legislative gridlock. Everything that arrived on the president's desk was a compromise -- energy policy, domestic spending, funding for the Iraq war.

“The way you accomplish things in the Senate is in the middle,” said the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. McConnell said his strategy was standard business for the Senate: “Either to shape things that we thought were headed in the right direction and there was a possibility of meeting in the middle, or if we thought it was completely inappropriate for the country, to stop it altogether.”

Like all strategies, the one Democrats have chosen is a gamble. Voters tell pollsters they are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans next year. But will voters stand by Reid if 2008 is branded as a do-nothing year?

When Republicans called Democrats the do-nothing Congress this year, Democrats spat back that Republicans were the Grand Obstruction Party.

Schumer, who heads Senate Democrats' reelection efforts, likes to say Republicans are filibustering themselves out of office.

Democratic senators will fan out to their states in 2008 and say that Democrats stood together for initiatives popular with Americans -- ending the war, providing health care for kids, curbing global warming.

“People know what we believe in, what we stand for, they know the Republicans are blocking us and that's OK,” Schumer said.

Reid believes his party will pick up at least four seats next year. If so, he would be in striking range of the 60 votes needed to pass legislation.

But today, as the year ends, the netroots activists who adored Reid at the start of the new Congress have begun turning on him, musing out loud about encouraging senators to oust him as leader. They complained that Reid's Senate caved -- allowing continued tax breaks for oil companies, approving a new attorney general who wouldn't call waterboarding torture, breaking the pay-as-you go promise by approving a tax break without a tax hike on the rich.

Some liberal lawmakers believe the way to accomplish their goals is for Reid to put even more pressure on Republicans to break. Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said Reid should do more to “highlight who's obstructing.”

“The one issue people have with Harry Reid, he's not embarrassing enough people,” Frank said.

Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate politics for The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan firm in Washington, said the problem for Democrats isn't that they haven't delivered much more than the Republicans.

“It's that voters don't see a difference,” Duffy said. “Voters are coming to the conclusion the parties are the same -- not philosophically the same, but they conduct themselves in the same way.”

Trying to end a war

Six weeks into the new Congress, as the promises of comity began to fade, Reid pulled a dramatic maneuver: He kept the Senate in session over Presidents Day weekend for a Saturday vote on Iraq.

Nine Republicans failed to show up, including Nevada's John Ensign, who was back home playing golf with his son. The Republican whip, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, praised the absences, saying the senators were right to gum up a vote that his side saw as a stunt.

The measure opposing Bush's troop surge failed to get 60 votes needed to advance. But it helped set the stage for a poisoned atmosphere that would dominate the Iraq debate for the year.

The Senate conducted 34 votes on Iraq. Only once did a measure to bring troops home succeed. Bush vetoed it.

Critics say Reid spent too much time on Iraq, that it became personal. He called it “Bush's war” and “the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of our country.”

By spring, as it became clear he could not find enough votes to override the president on Iraq votes, he embraced the party's left wing by putting his name on a bill to cut off troop funds.

Vote after vote only hardened Republicans' resolve.

Anti-war activists grew furious with Reid. All the while, the clock ticked down and other business went undone.

“If you're going to criticize him, you can criticize him for allocating so much floor time to the debate when it was pretty clear it wasn't going to accomplish anything,” Mann said. “And you can criticize him for his emotional investment.”

Could Reid really have stopped trying? Opinion polls show that more than two-thirds of Americans continue to oppose the war.

The real question is whether Reid missed an opportunity to broker middle ground. As Republicans started speaking out against Bush's war policy in the summer months, Reid failed to entertain a more moderate bill -- one without a withdrawal deadline -- that could have peeled Republicans away from Bush.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who faces a tough reelection in 2008, said she finds it “frustrating that those of us who were trying to find a bipartisan path forward on Iraq were unable to get votes on our proposals. I think there was an opportunity to change the course in Iraq, and to send a strong message to the president about the future direction, but that opportunity was lost.”

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University who has written extensively on Congress, said leaders are judged by the choices they make. In his view, Reid made a mistake.

“The criticism the Democrats have been facing is they weren't aggressive enough,” Zelizer said. “I think the bigger failure was that he didn't get something more moderate through. I think it would have been a blow to the administration.”

By fall the mood in Congress shifted as news from Iraq improved. The moment had passed. Before Congress left for the holidays, lawmakers approved another war funding bill, with no strings attached.

“Great leaders realize there are just moments, windows of opportunity,” Zelizer said, “and I think he missed.”

Reid remains optimistic about his chances for securing Republican support in 2008. “We're going to continue putting the pedal to the metal,” he said at his year-end news conference.

But the Democrats and Reid are clearly trying to find their way under the new terms of the Iraq debate.

Endgame

The Senate chaplain, a retired Navy rear admiral, opens each day's business with a prayer. On the last Monday of the session, he called on God to remind the senators “that ultimately they will be judged by their productivity.”

The Senate had become gridlocked. Reid had threatened to do cartwheels down the aisle if it would help shake things loose.

Democrats had accomplished plenty this year -- raising the minimum wage for the first time in a decade, adopting the most sweeping ethics laws since Watergate, crafting the greatest college loan assistance program since the GI bill, increasing automotive fuel efficiency standards for the first time in 30 years and providing unprecedented oversight of the Bush administration, leading to the resignation of the beleaguered attorney general.

Congress worked more days than in any session in years.

But all that seemed overshadowed by what it couldn't do. Stop the war. Provide health care for working-class kids. Address global warming by rolling back oil companies' tax breaks. Start a renewable energy requirement. End the torture of war prisoners.

Even passing the budget to keep the government running seemed dicey.

“It's been a really lousy year,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

In this hyper-partisan environment, where Reid liked to say Republicans were conducting “filibusters on steroids,” could another kind of majority leader have achieved better results?

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who was among those leading efforts to provide children's health insurance, said if not for Reid, the State Children's Health Care bill known as SCHIP wouldn't have progressed as far as it did.

Dozens of Republicans crossed party lines to back the bill, which polls show was supported by 70 percent of Americans. Children's health care would have been paid for by increasing the tax on cigarettes. Bush vetoed the bill twice.

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said even if “God himself” were in the majority leader's job, it would not have been a match for Republican obstructionism. Mann sums up Reid this way: “Were Tom Daschle and George Mitchell sort of smoother, were they more effective with the Washington press? You betcha. Could they make a more compelling, favorable case? Yes. Would either of them operating in this environment have a much more productive record? No.”

By the office fireplace again

People say running the Senate is like herding cats, with 100 Type-A personalities going in every direction. But watching the Senate feels more like being at a baseball game -- so much drama happens between the big home runs and base hits, even when it looks like nothing is going on at all.

The fire continues to burn strongly in Reid's office as snow covers the Capitol grounds. The workday is coming to a close. The Senate adjourns earlier than usual, without having taken a single roll-call vote. Christmas is almost here, and countless bills still needed to pass.

Reid is not one for regrets, or for comparing himself to those who held the office before his arrival.

“I can't be an Everett Dirksen, I don't have his long white hair, I don't have his voice. I can't be Mike Mansfield, I don't smoke a pipe,” he says. “I just have to be who I am.”

Reid's home state has benefited substantially from his rise to the majority leader's job, as Nevada has enjoyed financial and political gains from being home to arguably the nation's top elected Democrat.

But on the national stage Reid sees little more he can do when faced with Senate Republicans willing to stand beside Bush, even as they're “being marched over a cliff” for the next election.

He recalls his first alone time with Bush, years ago. “He was so nice, ‘I'll work with you, try to get along with Democrats.' That's Orwellian talk. Because everything he said to me personally was just the opposite ... This is not Harry Reid talking, this is history.

“I try to be pleasant, he tries to be pleasant,” Reid continued, “but there's an underlying tension there because he knows how I feel, that he's let down the American people by being a divider, not a uniter.”

He holds no hard feelings against Pelosi for setting an ambitious agenda. “Next year she will better understand the Senate than she did this year.”

In 2008 he has two legislative goals: “I would like to get us out of Iraq,” he said. “I'd like to establish something to give Americans, Nevadans, the ability to go to a doctor when they're sick.”

And one day, when this job is done, “I wouldn't mind being manager of a baseball team.”

Lisa Mascaro can be reached at (202) 662-7436 or at [email protected][--] allowing continued tax breaks for oil companies, approving a new attorney general who wouldn't call waterboarding torture, breaking the pay-as-you go promise by approving a tax break without a tax hike on the rich.

Some liberal lawmakers believe the way to accomplish their goals is for Reid to put even more pressure on Republicans to break. Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said Reid should do more to “highlight who's obstructing.”

“The one issue people have with Harry Reid, he's not embarrassing enough people,” Frank said.

Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate politics for The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan firm in Washington, said the problem for Democrats isn't that they haven't delivered much more than the Republicans.

“It's that voters don't see a difference,” Duffy said. “Voters are coming to the conclusion the parties are the same -- not philosophically the same, but they conduct themselves in the same way.”

Trying to end a war

Six weeks into the new Congress, as the promises of comity began to fade, Reid pulled a dramatic maneuver: He kept the Senate in session over Presidents Day weekend for a Saturday vote on Iraq.

Nine Republicans failed to show up, including Nevada's John Ensign, who was back home playing golf with his son. The Republican whip, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, praised the absences, saying the senators were right to gum up a vote that his side saw as a stunt.

The measure opposing Bush's troop surge failed to get 60 votes needed to advance. But it helped set the stage for a poisoned atmosphere that would dominate the Iraq debate for the year.

The Senate conducted 34 votes on Iraq. Only once did a measure to bring troops home succeed. Bush vetoed it.

Critics say Reid spent too much time on Iraq, that it became personal. He called it “Bush's war” and “the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of our country.”

By spring, as it became clear he could not find enough votes to override the president on Iraq votes, he embraced the party's left wing by putting his name on a bill to cut off troop funds.

Vote after vote only hardened Republicans' resolve.

Anti-war activists grew furious with Reid. All the while, the clock ticked down and other business went undone.

“If you're going to criticize him, you can criticize him for allocating so much floor time to the debate when it was pretty clear it wasn't going to accomplish anything,” Mann said. “And you can criticize him for his emotional investment.”

Could Reid really have stopped trying? Opinion polls show that more than two-thirds of Americans continue to oppose the war.

The real question is whether Reid missed an opportunity to broker middle ground. As Republicans started speaking out against Bush's war policy in the summer months, Reid failed to entertain a more moderate bill -- one without a withdrawal deadline -- that could have peeled Republicans away from Bush.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who faces a tough reelection in 2008, said she finds it “frustrating that those of us who were trying to find a bipartisan path forward on Iraq were unable to get votes on our proposals. I think there was an opportunity to change the course in Iraq, and to send a strong message to the president about the future direction, but that opportunity was lost.”

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University who has written extensively on Congress, said leaders are judged by the choices they make. In his view, Reid made a mistake.

“The criticism the Democrats have been facing is they weren't aggressive enough,” Zelizer said. “I think the bigger failure was that he didn't get something more moderate through. I think it would have been a blow to the administration.”

By fall the mood in Congress shifted as news from Iraq improved. The moment had passed. Before Congress left for the holidays, lawmakers approved another war funding bill, with no strings attached.

“Great leaders realize there are just moments, windows of opportunity,” Zelizer said, “and I think he missed.”

Reid remains optimistic about his chances for securing Republican support in 2008. “We're going to continue putting the pedal to the metal,” he said at his year-end news conference.

But the Democrats and Reid are clearly trying to find their way under the new terms of the Iraq debate.

Endgame

The Senate chaplain, a retired Navy rear admiral, opens each day's business with a prayer. On the last Monday of the session, he called on God to remind the senators “that ultimately they will be judged by their productivity.”

The Senate had become gridlocked. Reid had threatened to do cartwheels down the aisle if it would help shake things loose.

Democrats had accomplished plenty this year -- raising the minimum wage for the first time in a decade, adopting the most sweeping ethics laws since Watergate, crafting the greatest college loan assistance program since the GI bill, increasing automotive fuel efficiency standards for the first time in 30 years and providing unprecedented oversight of the Bush administration, leading to the resignation of the beleaguered attorney general.

Congress worked more days than in any session in years.

But all that seemed overshadowed by what it couldn't do. Stop the war. Provide health care for working-class kids. Address global warming by rolling back oil companies' tax breaks. Start a renewable energy requirement. End the torture of war prisoners.

Even passing the budget to keep the government running seemed dicey.

“It's been a really lousy year,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

In this hyper-partisan environment, where Reid liked to say Republicans were conducting “filibusters on steroids,” could another kind of majority leader have achieved better results?

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who was among those leading efforts to provide children's health insurance, said if not for Reid, the State Children's Health Care bill known as SCHIP wouldn't have progressed as far as it did.

Dozens of Republicans crossed party lines to back the bill, which polls show was supported by 70 percent of Americans. Children's health care would have been paid for by increasing the tax on cigarettes. Bush vetoed the bill twice.

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said even if “God himself” were in the majority leader's job, it would not have been a match for Republican obstructionism. Mann sums up Reid this way: “Were Tom Daschle and George Mitchell sort of smoother, were they more effective with the Washington press? You betcha. Could they make a more compelling, favorable case? Yes. Would either of them operating in this environment have a much more productive record? No.”

By the office fireplace again

People say running the Senate is like herding cats, with 100 Type-A personalities going in every direction. But watching the Senate feels more like being at a baseball game -- so much drama happens between the big home runs and base hits, even when it looks like nothing is going on at all.

The fire continues to burn strongly in Reid's office as snow covers the Capitol grounds. The workday is coming to a close. The Senate adjourns earlier than usual, without having taken a single roll-call vote. Christmas is almost here, and countless bills still needed to pass.

Reid is not one for regrets, or for comparing himself to those who held the office before his arrival.

“I can't be an Everett Dirksen, I don't have his long white hair, I don't have his voice. I can't be Mike Mansfield, I don't smoke a pipe,” he says. “I just have to be who I am.”

Reid's home state has benefited substantially from his rise to the majority leader's job, as Nevada has enjoyed financial and political gains from being home to arguably the nation's top elected Democrat.

But on the national stage Reid sees little more he can do when faced with Senate Republicans willing to stand beside Bush, even as they're “being marched over a cliff” for the next election.

He recalls his first alone time with Bush, years ago. “He was so nice, ‘I'll work with you, try to get along with Democrats.' That's Orwellian talk. Because everything he said to me personally was just the opposite ... This is not Harry Reid talking, this is history.

“I try to be pleasant, he tries to be pleasant,” Reid continued, “but there's an underlying tension there because he knows how I feel, that he's let down the American people by being a divider, not a uniter.”

He holds no hard feelings against Pelosi for setting an ambitious agenda. “Next year she will better understand the Senate than she did this year.”

In 2008 he has two legislative goals: “I would like to get us out of Iraq,” he said. “I'd like to establish something to give Americans, Nevadans, the ability to go to a doctor when they're sick.”

And one day, when this job is done, “I wouldn't mind being manager of a baseball team.”

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