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.
For nigh on four years, Reid has been able to run the Senate in contravention of existing law by refusing to pass a budget. Reid likes running government on an endless series of continuing resolutions because it dresses up bloated post-stimulus levels of spending to look like legitimate fiscal policy and has protected his members from casting unpopular votes in two straight election cycles, whereas a traditional budget process would force an actual conversation about priorities into the sunlight. The no budget/no pay thing is gimmicky, but it’s not a gimmick that will dissuade the president from signing the House plan as is. This puts Reid in a dilemma: Pass a budget, or work pro bono.
He’ll have to stand apart from the White House on gun control
As recently as 2010, Harry Reid was shooting skeet at a Nevada gun park (built with federal dollars that he helped secure) within hailing distance of Wayne “Yes, That Wayne LaPierre” LaPierre, who called Reid a “true champion” of the Second Amendment. Now Reid has to decide if, when, and how he’ll bring gun-control measures backed by his president and much of his caucus to the floor of the Senate.
Particularly vexing will be Senator Feinstein’s effort to reanimate a scary-guns ban. Reid has cast votes both in favor of and against past incarnations of the “assault weapons” ban, but the new model might be the most stringent yet, and would annoy a goodly number of Nevadans. More importantly, it would annoy a goodly number of purple-state constituents of purple-state members that Reid needs to hold his purple-state-driven majority. I can’t say how this will play out. And if Reid’s noncommittal statements — “We’re going to have votes on all kinds of issues dealing with guns. And I think everyone would be well-advised to read the legislation before they determine how they’re going to vote for it” — are any indication, neither can he.
Chuck Schumer is stealing his sunshine
Meanwhile, as Reid deals with all this unpleasantness, Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s number-three Democrat and Reid’s number-one rival, quietly plots, his reading spectacles dangling ever more precipitously from the end of his nose as a smile slowly spreads across his face. While Harry puts out fires in his caucus, Schumer — the ultimate camera hog — is tag-teaming with Marco Rubio, a smart-money prospect to be the next Republican president of the United States, on comprehensive immigration reform, the issue most likely to bring an interval of bipartisan free love to an otherwise gridlocked year.
Senator Reid has always been a moody chap, quick to offend. He has insulted, on the record, everyone from Senate colleagues (“can’t stand” John McCain) to Supreme Court justices (Justice Thomas the “embarrassment”) to chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the “incompetent” Peter Pace), and reserves a special scorn for the big-and-tall set — calling his staffers, and even President Bush’s dog, fatties. Some enterprising Senate Republican staffers have even started compiling a list of Reid’s top insults. If the majority leader’s lashing out is a function of frustration, we can expect a few additions this year.
— Daniel Foster is NRO’s news editor.