Harry Reid’s Bad Week

by Andrew Stiles
The Senate majority leader hasn’t looked like much of a leader at all.

The government shutdown that most Democrats thought would benefit them politically has not gone according to plan.

Sure, the initial polling shows that more Americans think Republicans (44 percent) are to blame than Democrats (35 percent), as most expected. But Democrats have hardly come off looking great. Reports that the Obama administration ordered the shuttering of the open-air World War II Memorial, temporarily blocking veterans from visiting, didn’t help. Top Democrats such as House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic National Committee chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz have refused to give up their paychecks during the shutdown. “Negotiations” between the two sides have descended into a war of Twitter hashtags. The White House is trolling for shutdown sob stories.

An anonymous White House aide recently boasted, “It doesn’t really matter to us” how long it lasts, because “we are winning.” But one wonders how long that ruse will last, as the president, whose approval rating remains underwater, publicly plays up the consequences of the shutdown.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, in particular, has had a rough week. Reid, who is reportedly the driving force behind the Democrats’ hardline negotiating strategy — or, rather, their refusal to negotiate — has lost his cool on more than one occasion. On Wednesday, he challenged the intelligence of a female reporter who asked why Democrats opposed the GOP plan to fund individual aspects of the government, such as clinical trials for children with cancer. “Why would we want to do that?” Reid wondered, much to his regret. On Thursday, the majority leader blocked a Republican attempt to vote on a bill to fund services and benefits for military veterans, even though the measure had passed the House with significant bipartisan support.

He has repeatedly lashed out at House speaker John Boehner, calling him a “coward” behind closed doors, questioning whether he had the “courage” to stand up to conservative “anarchists” (a favorite buzzword of his), and suggesting that Boehner is “keeping the government shut because I hurt his feelings.” Veteran GOP aides recognized the latter comment as a transparent attempt to cast Boehner in the mold of former speaker Newt Gingrich, whose proclivity for temper tantrums made him an easy political target, and a liability to his own party. Democratic efforts to paint Boehner, a much more modest man, as a Gingrich-like character have thus far been in vain.

Reid’s animosity toward Boehner is said to have reached a fever pitch after the House passed a continuing resolution to fund the government that also included a provision to eliminate Obamacare subsidies for members of Congress and their staff. The measure, often referred to as the Vitter amendment, is controversial, but polls extraordinarily well. Senate Democrats even sought to derail it by dredging up Republican senator David Vitter’s 2007 prostitution scandal.

That effort failed, and, in the interest of maintaining Democratic unity, Reid forced every member of his caucus to vote against the Vitter amendment on the Senate floor, including a number of vulnerable incumbents facing reelection in conservative states. “If I worked for the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee], I’d be really nervous about those votes,” a GOP aide tells National Review Online.

In retaliation, Reid’s chief of staff David Krone leaked personal e-mails of Mike Sommers, his counterpart in Boehner’s office, purporting to show the speaker’s concerted efforts to salvage the very health-care subsidies the House had voted to eliminate. Republicans were taken aback at what they considered an astonishing breach of conduct that has further soured the relationship between the two leaders and their staffs.

Reid has sought to dial back his angsty rhetoric of late, sitting for a conciliatory interview on Thursday with CNN’s Dana Bash, the reporter he had snapped at earlier about medical funding, and pledging to “work harder” to maintain the appropriate “habits of civility and decorum.” Democrats have “negotiated our hearts out,” he grumbled. Speaker Boehner was no longer a coward, just a “good man who has a tough job.”

Republicans are not impressed, and note that Reid’s recent outbursts are just the latest in a string of unsettling behavior. For example, despite reportedly promising not to invoke the so-called nuclear option to change Senate filibuster rules, Reid came very close to doing so over the summer. And despite pledging last year not to campaign against Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — an apparent act of collegial reciprocity after McConnell declined to involve himself in Reid’s 2010 reelection bid — Reid recently announced plans to host a Las Vegas fundraiser for McConnell’s Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, on October 11.

Ironically, given all his knocks on Boehner’s leadership, Reid’s behavior is unbecoming of a politician of his stature, Republicans argue, and is actively undermining the ability of the two sides to come to an agreement. They also doubt his non-negotiation strategy will improve his reputation at all.

“I don’t think they poll-tested ‘We won’t negotiate,’” Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) recently confided to McConnell, who was getting ready for a television appearance and wearing a microphone that picked up their private conversation. “I think it’s awful for them to say that over and over again.” McConnell agreed.

“We’re going to win this, I think,” Paul added. It’s still difficult to predict how the shutdown will play out, but Republicans are considerably more optimistic than they were only a few days ago. Probably not what Harry Reid expected.

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.