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October 9, 2015

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For Harry Reid, it’s been the best of times, worst of times

Reid’s year has been filled with political victories, personal trials and some compromises


AP Photo/Harry Hamburg

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid meets reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010.

When you’re in Congress, you mark time in two-year chunks. For Harry Reid, this last chunk was about as two-sided as it gets.

On the personal front, it’s been a time of existential trial.

Reid watched his own fate as a career politician hinge on the outcome of a brutal re-election campaign, that of his wife rest in the hands of a surgeon after a collision with an eighteen-wheeler, and that of his fellow Nevadans sink under the pressure of a protracted recession that has put the state in last place nationally in almost every measure from employment to foreclosures.

But on the professional front, things have never been better.

Scholars and pundits of all political persuasions agree that the 111th Congress has been the most productive the country has seen since at least the “Great Society” years of 1960s, if not ever.

The lion’s share of the credit goes to Reid, who as majority leader in the Senate was the ultimate stopgap: If he could find a way around blocks, filibusters and changing majorities, bills passed; if he couldn’t, they died.

“If we had accomplished in any prior Congress that I’ve been involved in 10 percent of what we were able to do this Congress, we’d be celebrating by turning back flips,” Reid said in his office on Wednesday, barely an hour after the Senate had ratified the new START treaty with Russia, its last major piece of work before breaking for the holidays.

“Think of the stuff that we’ve done.”

A partial list is considerable, even if some of the measures were controversial: The stimulus, health care overhaul and Wall Street reform; and bills to repeal the military’s policy against gays serving openly, strengthen equal-pay laws and give the Food and Drug Administration more power to regulate food safety and tobacco.

With Republicans coming to power in the House in less than two weeks, it’s likely we’ve not heard the last word on some of those issues — especially the stimulus and health care, which Reid counts as his biggest accomplishments.

Reid’s no stranger to partisan gridlock. There were 88 cloture votes in the 111th Congress, representing 88 filibuster threats from the GOP. The record number has put filibuster reform on the agenda for the next session.

Certain battles, he says, were “excruciating,” and he counts partisan gridlock as his biggest personal disappointment of the recent session.

“I was unable, I think until the lame duck, to convince my Republican colleagues that it was best to work together,” Reid said, echoing what has become a new mantra for him: The true take-away of the midterms was a mandate to work together. “Think of how much we could have done.”

The lame-duck session is, in a way, proof of that logic. With election pressure off, Senate Republicans and Democrats came together to pass more legislation — and in Start, approve the first arms control ever in a lame-duck session — in the last month.

It wasn’t always the way Democrats, or Reid, would have liked. A bill to extend tax cuts and unemployment insurance, for example, largely pitted congressional Democrats against the president, not a great position for a party regrouping for 2012.

Republican leaders such as Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have been salivating at deepening those tensions, warning Democrats that “if they think it’s bad now, just wait.”

But Reid doesn’t think so. And although it may buck conventional wisdom, recently he has been adept at disassociating impressions from facts. (Take his recent re-election: Polls and abysmal approval numbers had Reid presumed dead before he swept the state in a race that wasn’t close.)

Reid said his job for the next two years is to be a “cooling vessel for the heat of the House of Representatives.”

“It’s going to be much easier than it was,” Reid said.

Of course, that outlook doesn’t quite square with the to-do list Reid seems to have going in his head for the next session.

Amid all the activity, Congress failed to take significant steps in three major areas of the president’s agenda that are vitally important to struggling Nevada.

Energy legislation, a subject with huge implications for Nevada’s new renewables industry, not to mention Yucca Mountain, never happened. Neither did wide-scale, pre-collegiate education reform, or anything on immigration — a controversial topic nationally that has emerged as the key policy issue for Nevada’s Hispanic population, which made up 16 percent of the midterm electorate.

“I think you’re going to be surprised,” Reid said, promising to take up a comprehensive immigration bill. “I think we’re going to make some progress.”

Once presumed to just be a pre-election, base-shoring ploy, passing immigration reform appears to have emerged as one area for which Reid has formed a real passion. That’s a significant switch for a man who routinely voted against reform as a freshman senator.

But in sessions such as this one, there are moments of re-examination and learning, even for someone as entrenched as Reid.

His most significant came only days before the House approved the health care bill he had spearheaded, when he learned that his wife of more than 50 years, Landra, had been in an accident with an eighteen-wheeler and was hospitalized with a broken neck.

“Everything that we do here is important to somebody. But as individuals, the most important thing is what happens with our families and our friends,” Reid said. “She never asked for any sympathy or special attention, and I didn’t give her a lot, because I was stuck here. But she never complained.”

Reid says that experience made him stronger, and only more determined to forge ahead.

We’ll see how far it gets him in the next two years. Policy agenda aside, his political skills are likely to be in higher demand, as the wiry former boxer’s role morphs from legislative quarterback to campaign linebacker, protecting the president and his slim majority in the Senate when 23 members of his caucus are preparing to face re-election.

As he plots that strategy, he’ll likely recall another inspirational moment, and piece of wisdom handed over from a Senate colleague who, after being trounced by a Tea Partyer in the midterms, won’t be back next year.

“ ‘In life, you have to weigh your principles with the better good,’ ” Reid said, quoting outgoing Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold. “That’s what we do all the time.”

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