Reflections on the Senator from Searchlight

by John Lawrence

Changes in congressional party leadership do not happen very frequently, and when they do, it is a time for reflecting on that leader and his or her impact on the institution.

Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Searchlight, NV, announced Friday that he would not seek another term in the Senate in 2016. Perhaps it was his fall from the Majority Leader’s office last November, or the fall on his exercise machine on New Year’s Day: both left him battered and doubtless contributed to the decision of this once-fearsome boxer that the time had come to hang up the gloves.

Having known and worked with Reid in a variety of capacities over a couple of decades, especially when I served as Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff, I have long felt that the quiet and diminutive Leader often did not receive his due from press and political observers alike. Some of the underestimation of the Nevadan is due not simply to his low key style (which is not altogether unwelcome in the rancorous halls of the Capitol, especially in recent years), but to a misunderstanding of the power that the Senate leader possesses, a handicap of which Reid was all too aware.

Reid and Pelosi would meet frequently – at least weekly – when the both led majorities in their respective chambers. The discussions were focused on legislative strategy for moving key Obama legislation. Reid, who spent three terms in the House before winning a Senate seat in 1986, sometimes expressed feigned awe at the ability of Speaker Pelosi under House rules to schedule a bill for floor action, control the terms of debate, and ensure its passage at a date and time certain.

“There are times,” Reid once remarked, “when I wish I were the Speaker of the House.” (I’m not sure I believed him, but I understood his musing given the procedural need of the Senate majority to assuage the minority.) “The Speaker doesn’t have to worry about the minority. They run over everybody.” Of course, that observation is a gross simplification of the many challenges Pelosi faced in passing bills like the 2009 stimulus and health care reform, but the ability of any Speaker to use the rules to set the parameters and timing of debate is certainly one advantage of running the House.

Reid’s lament was not original; it has been said that the Senate Majority Leader enjoys the most exaggerated reputation for power of any job in Washington since he must regularly cajole 60 senators to even agree to consider debating a bill that requires only 50 votes to pass. Former Leader Mike Mansfield once remarked, “I’m not the leader really. My Democratic colleagues are the leaders. My job is just keeping the party together, smoothing over the differences, keeping tempers [under control], and trying to achieve the possible despite the differences inherent in the party.”

The late Howard Baker sounded similarly resigned to his limited powers when Republicans ran the Senate during the Reagan Administration. “The leader of the Senate relies on two prerogatives, neither of which is constitutionally or statutorily guaranteed,” Baker noted, “the right of prior recognition … and the right to schedule the Senate’s business. These, together with the reliability of his commitment and whatever power of personal persuasion one brings to the job, are all the tools a Senate leader has.”

Reid has understood the inherent limitations in his powers, and has proven a wily and formidable Leader in the majority and the minority. He may not have Lyndon Johnson’s height and personality to employ “The Treatment” – a combination of towering over and onto a recalcitrant colleague, occasionally jabbing him in the chest – but Reid knew his members and his institution, and with strategic patience, he usually found the votes he needed.

Reid’s resourcefulness was operating on full throttle during the latter, and crucial, phases of the passage of health care in 2010. A Senate-passed bill, which had received the necessary 60 votes, contained several provisions that House Democrats found highly objectionable; that bill could not pass the House. Nor could Reid reproduce the 60+ votes margin to pass the companion House bill. Reid and Pelosi constructed a two-step process that would have the House pass the flawed Senate bill, which would have to be signed into law for the strategy to work, after which the Senate would agree to pass a new House bill making numerous corrections to the just-enacted Senate product. The procedural abracadabra of this maneuver rested on writing that second bill as a budget reconciliation measure which only required a simple majority to pass the Senate (not 60), and which could not be filibustered like a regular piece of legislation.

There was one fly in the ointment: if the Senate failed to pass the House’s reconciliation cleanup bill, the original Senate bill would remain the law of the land, flaws and all. House Members were therefore obligated to pass the Senate bill knowing of that possibility, with only the assurance of the Senate that it would, in fact, pass that second, reconciliation measure to correct the Senate flaws (which some in the Senate, naturally, did not view as “flaws.”) Of course, everyone understood the health care two-step, and saboteurs would doubtless be out in force to ensure that the cleanup bill was derailed. How to secure the approval of House Members for a strategy that rested 100% on the trustworthiness of the sly Senate? How to guarantee that House Members were not left holding the bag, and an empty one at that?

This was the dilemma on our agenda when Speaker Pelosi and I journeyed to Sen. Reid’s ornate office for our regular weekly strategy meeting in March, 2010. The details of that discussion will have to await another time and venue, but it was at that meeting that Sen. Reid proposed securing the signatures of 51 Senate Democrats pledging the take up and pass the reconciliation measure if the House would first pass the Senate health bill and send it to the President’s desk. Sen. Reid asked me what I thought of that plan and, as I recall, I let out a short laugh, having spent over 30 years among House Democrats who believed “Republicans are the opposition, but the Senate is the enemy.” I believe I told Sen. Reid that his plan would never be acceptable to a skeptical Democratic Caucus.

And yet only a day or so later, Sen. Reid came before House Democrats to lay out his plan and to assure them he had the 51 signatures he needed to pass that second reconciliation bill. The names, however, would have to remain confidential. “Here it comes,” I thought to myself, waiting for the certain raucous dismissal by the House Members.

Silence. Not one question. No catcalls, laughter, shoes flung at the podium. Reid simply presented his pledge, said “thank you,” and left; the Caucus endorsed the strategy, and I was left wondering how I had so totally misjudged the response of the Caucus that I thought I knew pretty well.

Now it is true, House Democrats were prepared to swallow a lot they didn’t like – no public option, no single payer, abortion restrictions, etc. – because achieving health care reform trumped nearly any objection. Still, I was mystified that Reid had pulled off this legislative legerdemain without a ripple of skepticism or dissent. That told me all I needed to know about his wiliness.

That was the second time Harry Reid flabbergasted me. Nearly two decades earlier, I was staff director of the House Natural Resources Committee and was locked in a nasty battle to raise the highly subsidized rates charged Western ranchers who fed their cattle on federal lands. Like most Western interests who benefitted from the resources of the federal government they denigrated, the ranchers were ballistic about the Clinton Administration proposal to raise fees to market rates, and a good number of them resided in Nevada.

Over in the Senate, I was involved in a staff meeting when the door opened and in walked Sen. Reid, whom I had known during his years in the House. Displaying the confrontational directness for which he is known, Reid accused me – he always referred to me as “Dr. Lawrence” — of promoting proposals that would severely impact his constituents in Nevada, an accusation that was completely inaccurate. I was both embarrassed to be upbraided by a senator in front of my staff colleagues, and incensed by the inaccuracy of the accusations. I fired back, telling Reid he was completely off-base with a directness that was, admittedly, inappropriate in speaking to a United States Senator, certainly during a public meeting. Reid withdrew and the meeting continued; shortly thereafter, Reid re-entered the room and I steeled myself for round two; instead, Reid said that he had checked with his staff, and that his original remonstrance was inaccurate. He apologized and left the room, and we went on and finalized a compromise agreement.

That incident stayed with me for years, both because I could not believe the inapposite tone of my response to his allegations, and especially because Reid had returned after speaking with his advisors and, to an entire room of staff people, admitted he had been wrong. Senators apologizing to staff, let alone to House staff, is – let us say – uncommon.

So it was with some trepidation that I awaited my first meeting with Reid as Pelosi’s chief of staff in 2005. I had had no contact with Reid in the ensuing decade and a half, during which time he had risen to the role of Senate Democratic Leader. I was looking forward to a good working collaboration, but lingering in the back of my head was our last conversation over the grazing fee dispute. As Reid walked into Pelosi’s office and shook hands with her, she motioned over to me and said, “Harry, I want you to meet…” Reid interrupted her to say, “Well, hello Dr. Lawrence, we haven’t seen each other since the grazing fee discussion.” My heart sunk as we shook hands, but it was the last time Reid ever mentioned the dispute. Instead, we had a fruitful and cordial working relationship and when we had a spare moment over the next 5 or 6 years, we would occasionally talk about the role of the Wobblies in the Nevada mining wars of the 1890s.

Postscript: Reid’s departure likely means as contest for his leadership position between New York Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois. (Reid has endorsed Schumer.) The two aspirants have spent decades together both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives and as lodgers in a D Street SE house owned by mutual friend, recently retired Rep. George Miller.