J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Friday, Aug. 23, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The Capitol may still house, as critics complain, a do-nothing Congress, but in the Senate, the summer was a season of big deals.
There was a budget bill. A student loan bill. A deal on the procedural filibuster. And who could forget immigration?
But none of them were chiefly orchestrated by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
After a few years of being the point man on almost every bill that came through the Senate, Reid has stepped off to one side, passing the spotlight on major negotiations to the most trusted Democrats on his leadership team.
Sen. Patty Murray handled the budget; Sen. Richard Durbin chaired negotiations on student loans. Sen. Charles Schumer, the Democrats’ third in command and a lawmaker who has long wanted to succeed Reid as leader, brokered the high-profile immigration and filibuster deals.
“I have a pretty good sense of legislation. I know I want to score a run; I just don’t know how I’m going to do it,” Reid said last month, when asked why he’d decided to pass off negotiations, particularly the filibuster deal, to his colleagues. “As I look on this, I kind of just did what I had to do.”
But this may be a trend born not just of spontaneous decision-making but also calculated political necessity.
“Because of the difficult relationships between Reid and (Senate Minority Leader Mitch) McConnell at this point, Reid is viewed as radioactive by a lot of Republicans — and he understands this,” said Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “This is not a situation where Harry is afraid to delegate. ... He understands that you’re more likely to have success if you let some of the other guys do this.”
Reid has spent the past few years tangling with several top Republicans.
There’s his direct counterpart, McConnell, with whom Reid has had an ongoing dispute over a lack of cooperative ethic. A re-election challenge in Kentucky has prompted McConnell to become an even more stalwart advocate of the Republican Party line.
Reid also has played counterpoint to House Speaker John Boehner, alternatively charging him with cowardice, offering him pity and generally lambasting him for not being able to corral the Tea Party faction of his Republican conference.
But it wasn’t just Reid’s political opining that put him in an adversarial position with Republicans.
During his term as majority leader, Reid has been the arbiter on significant legislation perhaps more than any other leader before him, largely because his term has been dominated by a plethora of bills that only a majority leader is fully equipped to handle.
“Unfortunately, leaders only deal with fiscal cliffs,” one former Senate Democratic aide said. “There was TARP, the stimulus, the auto bailout, the fiscal cliff, the debt limit debacle and then the sequester. ... One fiscal crisis after another, he’s had to play more of a role.”
A spokeswoman for Reid pointed out that it has always been the majority leader's preference to defer to the Senate’s traditional committee structure, referencing how major bills such as the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill were put through a full and public committee vetting process.
But in the past few years, even most nonfiscal deals, such as health care, ended up being so massive that they often came down to Reid’s office.
“Reid has done what other majority leaders tried and failed to do, and that is to get comprehensive health care passed,” the former aide said.
Lawmaking in Congress is not supposed to be so centralized. The legislative system has a built-in system for delegating authority: Below the majority leader, there are committee chairs; below the committee chairs, there are subcommittee chairs. Legislation is supposed to start from the ground and work its way through committees, leaving the majority leader to whip up votes and put it on the floor.
But fierce inter-party acrimony, punctuated by a series of bitterly partisan election cycles, drove large bills into high-stakes, eleventh-hour, all-night negotiations. As a result, the drafting of fiscal bills moved into leaders’ chambers, tabling any expectation of tackling most other matters.
Bit by bit, some semblance of the traditional order is creeping back in, with the first major ventures being orchestrated from the ranks of the leadership team — mostly because Reid trusts them the most to carry out plans to his approval.
“They bonded together in 2006 and 2008, where they worked very closely together to get the majority to take over the Senate,” a former Senate Democratic aide said. “In Reid’s world, it’s the four of them. They do everything together.”
But they do not always think as one.
Although Murray and Durbin have generally seen eye-to-eye with the majority leader, Schumer has sometimes publicly tangled with Reid on major issues.
Schumer reportedly clashed with Durbin and Reid over his insistence, during the immigration debate, that Democratic senators had better swallow a dramatically amped-up border security amendment if they wanted a chance at securing Republican support for a comprehensive bill.
“Schumer in the last year especially has just become more and more adept at finding a sweet spot with Republicans,” Ornstein pointed out, especially with Sen. John McCain, who was his partner on the immigration and procedural filibuster deals. “Harry is very pragmatic on this stuff. ... He has very strong, savvy lieutenants who have built these relationships with Republicans. At this point, it’s whatever works.”
Reid eventually tipped his hat to Schumer’s deal-making.
“No one other than (Schumer) thought we could get 70 votes,” Reid said the day after the immigration bill passed with 67 senators supporting. “I have watched a lot of things on this floor. ... To see this could take place is remarkable.”
As Reid passes out praise and responsibilities to his lieutenants, some are wondering whether his moves are precursors for passing the baton.
If Reid decides not to seek re-election in 2016, the top Democratic spot would be open. Schumer and Durbin were once rumored to be quietly and privately rivals for majority leader as a contingency plan if Reid had lost his race against Sharron Angle in 2010.
“Reid’s got to decide whether he’s going to run again in 2016, because of his age — but that’s jumping way ahead; it’s too early to address that yet,” said Larry Sabato, director at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “If he’s no longer majority leader, that may be a factor in his decision.”
Although Reid will be 76 during the 2016 election season, he hasn’t given any indication he will do anything but run for a sixth Senate term. Yet even if he is building up the next generation of party leaders (most of whom are about 10 years younger), it isn’t clear he’s interested in having a hand in picking his successor.
None of the Democrats being edged into the spotlight arrived there out of turn.
When Congress mandated that budgeting should be done by regular order, Murray was the natural director for that process, as chairwoman of the Budget Committee. Schumer, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary’s immigration subcommittee, was a natural choice as head of the ad hoc Gang of Eight that steered immigration through Congress. And Reid still made sure to give Durbin time before the cameras to talk up his major contribution, the DREAM Act, while negotiations progressed.
“Sometimes Schumer fights a little more to get into the limelight than Durbin does, but it’s not a planned thing; it’s just Schumer’s personality,” a former Democratic aide said, noting that Schumer was one of just two people — the other one being the president — from whom Reid would field late-night phone calls. “But as leader, Reid’s role is not to sit in or manage negotiations over immigration bills. His role is to take the final product, get it on the Senate floor and hopefully, off the floor.”
Despite shifts in who negotiates these bills, Reid’s record on that most fundamental responsibility of majority leadership hasn’t changed. Routinely, Reid has delivered a larger swath of Senate Democrats for major pieces of legislation than any other caucus or conference in Congress, even if he didn’t necessarily agree — as with the student loans bill — with the final negotiated product.
Because a compromise deal, as Reid often says, is better than no deal.
“Let’s face it: You can delegate, but that may mean that you end up with a product you’re not particularly happy with. But I don’t think you’re going to see a change in the style here,” Ornstein said. “You’re not going to have that happening very often with deals where very visibly, Harry Reid is the guy doing it, because for an awful lot of Republicans, he’s a visible devil figure.”