Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011 | 2 a.m.
WASHINGTON — At the end of 2010, having just presided over the most productive Congress since the “Great Society” years, Sen. Harry Reid predicted that his job for 2011 — to be a “cooling vessel for the heat of the House of Representatives,” as he characterized it — was “going to be much easier.”
“Everything we’ve done this last year has been a knock-down, drag-out fight,” Reid said last week, reflecting on the last 12 months. “That isn’t the way things need to be.”
Congress has long been in the vice-grip of partisan divide, but Reid has operated in a far more precarious political climate ever since the Tea Party movement swept Republicans back into control of the House. Now, acrimony isn’t just omnipresent: it’s the only order of business in Congress, whether that business is meaty or mundane.
That has Reid, the erstwhile boxer who emerged from the past year of sparring less strategically bloodied than any of his counterparts, standing back and shaking his head.
“I hope this Congress has had a very good learning experience, especially those who are newer to this body,” he said. “Legislation is the art of compromise, consensus-building, not trying to push your way through on issues that you don’t have the support of the American people.”
It’s a paternalistic outtake for Reid, whose only real rank over his negotiating counterparts — chiefly House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama, but also Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi — comes because he has held his top position the longest.
But in the last year, Reid has taught each of his principal colleagues — and by extension, their constituents — a lesson in leadership that’s been vindicated by experience: 2011 may have taken Reid through the ringer, but it’s also tipped the political balance to his party’s favor.
Government shutdowns, debt ceiling debacles, and a near-miss on payroll tax cuts and unemployment insurance created a climate of constant crisis that did not resonate well with the public: polls this year put Congress’ approval rating as low as 9 percent.
“The public may not like it, but they created it,” said Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann. “The midterm elections elevating the Republicans to the majority of the House basically ensured an unproductive and highly contentious year. ... As far as Reid’s concerned, given that election, it was inevitable that nothing was going to get done. The question was, would any great damage be perpetrated?”
Congress managed to avoid catastrophe, but even modest issues became massive undertakings.
Compared to the Congress that came before, the legislative accomplishments of 2011 are downright pathetic. In the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, Congress passed a sweeping stimulus package, a health care overhaul, an unprecedented financial regulatory restructuring and a compromise on tax policy.
In the first half of the 112th Congress, the most ambitious ventures were rather routine tasks: keeping the federal government funded and making sure the United States didn’t default on its foreign debts. In both cases, it took lawmakers until the final hours of national viability to shake hands on a deal.
The country got so used to cliffhanger scenarios that a near-government shutdown scenario in mid-December barely registered with the public. But over the course of all these close calls, Republicans began to lose their message.
“The Republicans looked at the outcome of [the 2010] election as a mandate instead of, more accurately, just the level of unhappiness with the economy and the bickering inside Washington,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “And that would mean overreach.”
“Frankly, Reid doesn’t play a major part in this story,” Mann said. “[The Republicans] are the ones who decided to take hostages initially with the budget ... then with the debt ceiling, and now with the tax holiday and unemployment benefits and Medicare reimbursement for physicians.”
To count Reid out of the process isn’t exactly accurate: He brokered every successful policy compromise of the last year, emerging from the negotiating room every so often to broadcast his spin on the situation to the public — which was then amplified and redistributed by the 23 incumbent Democratic senators whose seats he’s trying to defend in 2012.
But keeping most Democrats simply and cohesively on message while Republicans frayed and eventually fell apart was likely his greatest accomplishment of the half-baked session.
“Harry Reid is the most skilled of those four [principal leaders in Congress],” said UNR political science professor Eric Herzik. Boehner, Herzik said, “has real problems with his group.”
Since the start of the 112th Congress, Boehner has been struggling to heal an internal rift between two factions in his sprawling GOP conference: the traditional conservatives and the fired-up, no-compromise fundamentalists, who often self-identify with the Tea Party.
He’s struggled, on contentious issues, to hold the 218 of 242 Republicans needed to constitute a House majority, opting in each case to first prove he can hold his party factions together around strict-conservative demands instead of approaching House Democrats to build bipartisan coalitions. In April, that meant demanding Planned Parenthood be defunded in order to avoid a government shutdown; in in July and August, it meant adopting a balanced budget amendment to approve a deficit reduction and debt limit increase; and in December, it meant hinging a payroll tax cut on Obama’s potential approval of a Canada-to-U.S. oil pipeline.
None of the demands (save the oil pipeline instruction, which Obama is expected to kill anyway) actually made it into the final compromises. But with each battle, the stakes grew higher and the rifts in the Republican party more exposed. Earlier this month, things came to a head when House Republicans engaged in a public spat with Senate Republicans over a short-term bill to extend payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits that had passed the Senate 89-to-10; in the end, Boehner could only end the standoff by calling the bluff of his entire conference, and conciliating.
“The attitude that so many of [the House Republicans] have is we’re not like the class of ‘94,” Ornstein said, comparing the new Republican crew to the last class of Republicans to sweep the House. “They caved. And [they think] if they hadn’t caved — and this rewriting history in a fashion that anyone who was there would say is insane — that if we hadn’t caved, we would have prevailed.
“Boehner knows what he ought to be doing. He also knows that to do it would mean the end of his speakership sooner or later, and it’s not like Eric Cantor has his back.”
Reid, who has been declaring the Tea Party’s agenda as transparent as the emperor’s clothes since he bested the movement’s dearest darling, Sharron Angle in the 2010 midterms, has been emphatically pointing out the GOP rift since the start of the 112th Congress. Along with Democratic leaders in the House, he at first sympathized with, then later blamed, Boehner for being a weak leader, and accused Republicans of being faithless negotiating partners and always walking away from deals.
Until this summer though, Obama didn’t seem — or want — to see it.
“It’s taken Obama a long time to realize that he has no negotiating partner on the other side of the aisle,” Mann said. “He’s felt obliged to play it out, and he bent over backwards to accommodate Republican interests and beliefs, and got nothing but further collapse.”
But that changed during the debt ceiling debate, when Boehner stopped returning the president’s phone calls, abandoning a deal Obama thought they had all but struck.
“All [Obama’s] criticisms now will be of the Republican Congress, and that strengthens Reid’s hand,” Mann added.
Having the unwavering support of the president in future congressional stalemates could also strengthen Reid’s longer-term chances to remain in charge of the Senate — something that depends on his party getting more than a score of decisive wins in 2012.
“It gives him an agenda. The polls are moving in their direction, and Republicans seem quite on the defensive,” said UNLV political science professor David Damore. “It seems to me like any momentum or any goodwill [Republicans] might have had coming out of the midterms is largely gone.”
Reid’s already using those signals to sound an optimistic chord on upcoming business of the new year, such as the longer-term payroll tax and unemployment negotiations Congress has to conclude before the end of February.
“I’ve talked to Senate Republicans, plural, who think there should be a fair tax on rich people,” Reid told reporters last week, slyly predicting that one of the Democrats’ most politically divisive policy initiatives — getting millionaires to pay more in taxes to offset the cost of job-creating programs and deficit reduction — had a quiet bipartisan caucus of support building.
“From our perspective,” Reid said, “this is a new day.”