Harry Reid is having a banner year. The Senate majority leader has emerged as an unlikely darling of the Left, most recently because of his decision to annihilate longstanding Senate precedent by “nuking” the filibuster on executive-branch and judicial nominations. In the near term, this move will allow President Obama to pack the lower courts with liberal justices to rubber-stamp his extensive regulatory regime; in the longer term, it potentially sets the stage for the outright demise of the filibuster and “the end of United States Senate.”
At least, that’s how Reid himself put it in 2005, when the Republican majority almost took the drastic step that he has now embraced. “A filibuster is the minority’s way of not allowing the majority to shut off debate, and without robust debate, the Senate is crippled,” Reid wrote in his 2008 memoir, The Good Fight. “Trying to blow up the Senate” in a “fit of partisan fury” would be a “very radical thing” for Republicans to do, and “would tamper dangerously with the Senate’s advise-and-consent function as enshrined in the Constitution.” After all, the filibuster was a “a perfectly reasonably tool to effect compromise.” Preserving it, he would later boast, was “the most important thing I ever worked on.”
Reid clearly felt strongly about the issue when Democrats were the minority party in the Senate, and he insisted that as majority leader he would never target the filibuster. However, as the problems with the Obamacare rollout continue to mount, and the president barrels headlong into lame-duck territory amid plummeting poll numbers, Reid is invoking his “right to change how I feel about things.” As is the president, apparently.
Reid’s change of heart dates back to October 2011, when he used the nuclear option to scale back the ability of the Republican minority to offer amendments, something he has effectively restricted for years — in unprecedented fashion — through a process known as “filling the tree.” Republicans have often cited this tactic of “filling the tree” in defense of their decision to filibuster legislation. Earlier this year, Reid threatened to go nuclear again to eliminate the filibuster on executive-branch nominees, but not for judges. Feelings change.
Prominent interest groups on the left, however, have long desired the vitiation of minority rights in the Senate and have pestered Reid to take action ever since Obama took office. The Democratic class of 2012 includes some of the most liberal members of the Senate — Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), and Chris Murphy (Conn.), among others — who have been gunning for the filibuster. They’ve also never served in the minority, one might observe. “For Reid, it’s not about the institution, it’s about power,” says a senior GOP aide. “At the moment, his power resides in the confidence of the most liberal members of his caucus.”
Reid also won high praise from liberals for his hardline stance that precipitated last month’s government shutdown, although his temperament during the ordeal was more typical of an angsty teenager than of a veteran leader. He not only lashed out and challenged the intelligence of a female reporter who questioned his strategy, but he repeatedly attacked House speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) as a “coward” who lacked the “courage” to stand up to tea-party “anarchists” and accused the speaker of “keeping the government shut because I hurt his feelings.” In a move that shocked GOP lawmakers, Reid’s office also leaked the personal e-mails of Boehner’s chief of staff to Politico. The leak apparently was retaliation for Boehner’s support of legislation to end health-insurance subsidies for members of Congress and their staff.
Reid went to great lengths to ensure that Vice President Joe Biden played no role in the shutdown negotiations, owing to the lingering resentment among many Democrats, particularly liberals such as Tom Harkin (Iowa), over the deal Biden struck with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) to resolve the fiscal-cliff impasse earlier this year. At one point during those fiscal-cliff talks, Reid reportedly tore up a White House proposal and tossed it in the flames of his office fireplace.
Some Republicans think Reid is trying to placate the most leftist members in order shore up his position as leader and ward off potential challenges from the likes of Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Patty Murray (D., Wash.). “He has become indistinguishable from Tom Harkin,” a GOP aide says of Reid. “He may have needed to be toward the center to get where he is; now he needs to be Tom Harkin.” Congressional Democrats have certainly moved to the left in recent years, even though most of the media focus has been on the GOP’s shift to the right.
On numerous other issues, Reid has managed to subdue what might have once been his more conservative inclinations. The professedly pro-life, pro-gun, anti-gay-marriage Democrat has nonetheless pursued measures to restrict gun ownership and managed to secure high ratings from groups such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL. In addition to pushing through Obamacare, which included insurance coverage for abortion, Reid recently suggested that anti-abortion protestors were partly responsible for the horrific atrocities of Kermit Gosnell.
Generally speaking, the majority leader of late has displayed a remarkably cavalier attitude toward politics that makes him, in the words of New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich, “one of the most potent, odd, and overlooked phenomena of This Town.” Given Reid’s blunt and often judgmental style, Leibovich writes in his book This Town, it’s not unusual that he would forgo saying goodbye in phone conversations, call out a studio technician for having “terrible breath,” or greet the president’s dog by calling it “fat” (as he did to Barney, George W. Bush’s dog).
Reid also seems to have developed an interesting habit of simply making things up. In 2012, he dished to the Huffington Post about an anonymous “Bain investor” who told him that Mitt Romney “didn’t pay any taxes for ten years,” a claim he reiterated on multiple occasions but never proved. Reid lamented that Romney’s “poor father must be so embarrassed about his son.”
More recently, he was apparently the source behind Senator Dick Durbin’s (D., Ill.) controversial accusation that during a White House meeting a GOP congressman (Pete Sessions of Alabama, it was later revealed) had told President Obama, “I cannot even stand to look at you.” The White House quickly refuted the claim.
For Republicans, the good news is that, at the moment, Reid’s majority looks increasingly vulnerable thanks to the Obamacare fiasco. And if the GOP does regain control of the Senate in 2014, they’ll have Reid to thank for enhancing their ability to box in Democrats, who may come to regret changing the rules in such unprecedented fashion.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.