The Winter of Harry’s Discontent
The Senate’s majority leader is in for a difficult 2013.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid


Daniel Foster

Like disco and the Soviet Red Army, Harry Reid reached his apogee in 1979, when, as head of the Nevada Gaming Commission, he had Chicago Outfit enforcer Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro — who would later be portrayed by Joe Pesci in the Scorsese epic Casino – blacklisted and barred from entering any gambling facility in the state. This put a major dent in the Outfit’s reign of extortion and murder in Vegas. Around that time, Reid also tried to choke lawyer Jack Gordon, who had offered him a bribe, and had to be restrained by FBI agents with whom Reid was cooperating on a sting.

To my mind, Reid’s been plummeting back to Earth ever since. But even if you’re inclined to think he did anything worthwhile between 1980 and 2012, you’ll have to agree that 2013 is not shaping up to be a good year for the Senate majority leader. Here are five reasons why.

He got bypassed on the fiscal-cliff deal

Reid’s bad 2013 actually started in 2012 with negotiations over the fiscal cliff. As is their wont, Congress dealt with the December 31 fiscal-cliff deadline on January 2. A good part of that delay had to do with Mitch McConnell’s inability to strike a deal with Harry Reid. Not with the White House, or with Senate Democrats — but with Reid.

With less than 24 hours to go until the deadline and Reid’s office dallying and delaying, a fed-up McConnell called Vice President Joe Biden, whom he credited with “jump-starting” negotiations. The deal they hammered out in a series of late-night phone calls passed with massive bipartisan support: 89–8 in the Senate, and 257–167 in the House. As with the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis and the 2010 standoff over the extension of the Bush tax cuts, Reid’s inability to negotiate with his Republican counterpart resulted in his impotence, not the minority’s. And so Reid began the year accomplishing the rare feat of making Joe Biden look like the adult in the room.

He didn’t kill the minority

The 113th Congress could have gone two dramatically different ways for Harry Reid and his Democrats. They could have neutered the filibuster, and swept away some or most of the counter-majoritarian safeguards built into the United States Senate. Considering Republican control of the House, this would have been of immediate use only in nomination fights. But it would have set a precedent for future weakening and even elimination of 60-vote thresholds, making it easier for future generations of politicians to turn their wildest policy ambitions into reality.

Instead, and despite months of threats, Reid settled for almost nothing. He failed to make enough old-timers in his party forget that they’ll be in the minority again someday, failed to get a return to the “talking filibuster,” and failed to flip the burden for maintaining a filibuster from the majority to the minority. For Reid it’s basically status quo ante. If anything, the spirit of the deal helps Republicans more than Democrats. It gestures towards allowing for more minority amendments to bills while getting only minor procedural streamlining in return.

He’ll probably have to pass a budget

By the end of the latest debt-limit standoff, the default caucus in the House got shut out, John Boehner hung on to his tenuous leadership of the House agenda, and the White House backed off from its opposition to a short-term extension tied to spending negotiations. This was possible because Boehner stapled the “no budget, no pay” act to the debt-ceiling suspension to pacify conservatives, and the White House, gingerly trying to escort its new borrowing authority across the finish line without destroying it, said that was a-okay. The only casualty was Harry Reid’s accounting preferences.