J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014 | 2 a.m.
As much as anyone, Harry Reid is responsible for building modern-day Nevada. He has leveraged political savvy and well-placed Washington friends to pave bike lanes, build solar plants and land Tesla Motors’ battery factory.
But Reid could lose something important this fall: His power to control the U.S. Senate.
Republicans are rising in Senate races across the country. Who controls the Senate next remains a toss-up. If Republicans take six seats back in the Nov. 4 election, Reid will lose his seven-year grip on the majority leader’s chair.
What does a majority leader do?
Sen. Harry Reid has held the majority leader title since 2007. Democrats took control of the Senate in 2006.What exactly does the leader of the U.S. Senate do? Here’s a guide:
Represent the Senate: The title of majority leader has been around only since the 1920s when President Woodrow Wilson encouraged Senate Democrats to appoint one. The position has grown to be both the party spokesperson and spokesperson for the Senate, as inscribed in Senate rules. The leader gets a large office directly across from the Senate floor (there’s a spare room for colleagues to park during votes) and 24-hour protection from U.S. Capitol Police. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Va., an iconic majority leader in the 1970s and 1980s, once drew a nice distinction between the role of minority and majority leader. “Sen. Byrd once said a minority leader represents his party, while a majority leader represents the Senate,” Senate Historian Donald Ritchie said.
Run the calendar: The majority leader sets the Senate’s pace and schedule. The leader chooses which lawmakers sit on what committees, decides which bills get voted on and when, and determines how many hours senators have to debate a bill. This one-person calendar gives Reid a lot more power than Speaker John Boehner has in the House, which votes by committee to bring bills to the floor.
Strike backroom deals: Reid’s power compared to the House speaker’s dwindles once a bill gets to the floor. In the House, bills pass with a majority vote. In the Senate, every lawmaker has roughly the same amount of power. Any senator can introduce an amendment to a bill or halt deliberations by talking a bill to death, called filibustering. Senate rules require a two-thirds majority, or 60 votes, to end a filibuster. In today’s hyperpartisan Senate, leaders assume controversial bills will face a filibuster threat, so they often negotiate them behind the scenes to get 60 votes before bringing the legislation to the floor.
Conventional wisdom says Nevada will suffer if its senior senator loses his hold on the Senate’s top position. But the consensus of more than a dozen veteran Democratic and Republican insiders say conventional wisdom is wrong. Reid, a former boxer, has proven to be a such a skilled Senate tactician that his political capital weighs more than his title.
“I think Sen. Reid is probably the most powerful person in Washington, D.C., whether in the majority or minority,” said Tom Skancke, president of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance and a longtime Reid supporter.
How Reid got to the top
Reid got his start in Washington, thanks to Republican President Ronald Reagan.
In a flood of Democratic sweeps that countered Reagan’s victory, Nevada elected Reid to the House of Representatives in 1982. He jumped to the Senate during a similar Democratic wave four years later.
Reid rose through the Senate ranks, becoming the No. 2 Democrat in a Republican-controlled Senate just before George W. Bush’s first term. That’s when Reid’s political tactics started making headlines.
In 2002, the Senate designated Yucca Mountain the nation’s nuclear waste dump despite Reid’s efforts against the move. Despite the defeat, the Wall Street Journal wrote about Reid’s “formidable persuasive powers” that kept the anti-Yucca campaign going so long. A framed copy of the article now sits in Reid’s Las Vegas office.
Reid’s colleagues voted him their leader after Democrats took both chambers of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections in Bush’s second term.
As Senate majority leader, Reid controls what bills get voted on and when and who chairs committees. That gives him enormous political leverage among his colleagues and the opposition.
Suddenly, his job to help Nevada got a lot easier.
He effectively reversed that 2002 vote and kept nuclear waste out of Yucca Mountain, at least as long as he has been in power. He used the federal government’s checkbook to provide loans for clean energy projects, including a $343 million federal loan guarantee for a transmission line linking Nevada’s clean energy production plants to the regional power grid. And he created a program that led to a $465 million federal loan guarantee for Tesla Motors’ production plant in California. The company this month announced it would build its lithium-ion battery “gigafactory” in Nevada.
Out of the spotlight, Reid has helped secure federal grants for Nevada, such as the one he announced Sept. 9 for $29 million that included $13.3 million to widen bike and pedestrian lanes on Flamingo Road.
“Harry Reid has done more for Nevada than all other senators from the state combined,” said Billy Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners and a close Reid friend.
What happens if Democrats lose
The politics that carried Reid to power are working against him.
Reid swept into office when voters showed their displeasure with an unpopular president. Now, Reid’s Senate colleagues face voters weary of President Barack Obama. As a result, most forecasts expect control of the Senate to go to the Republicans.
Nevadans will have to watch the election drama from the sidelines. Neither Reid nor Republican junior Sen. Dean Heller are up for re-election. Instead, Reid’s fate as majority leader rests in the hands of voters in Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas and other states.
“The rest of the country is going to hand Nevada a decision about how powerful their senator is going to be,” said John Hudak, a government studies expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Reid certainly is doing all he can behind the scenes, raising millions for his affiliated Senate Majority PAC. And those who have counted him out before learned their lesson.
If Reid does lose power, things certainly would change for Nevada, but almost nobody believes Reid would be immobilized.
“As minority leader, he’s probably effective, but he’s got to use different tools,” said Robert Lang, director of Brookings Mountain West, a think tank.
That’s where Reid’s political skills would come in handy. Reid was an undeniably talented politician when he was in the minority. If he’s there again, he is likely to be even more savvy after seven years as majority leader.
Reid knows how to maneuver Senate rules to his advantage better than anyone in Congress. He also can reach out to the White House for help to stop a bill or secure federal grants for Nevada (assuming Democrats keep the White House; if they lose it in 2016 and Republicans control the Senate, Reid’s influence in Washington would face a major roadblock.)
Reid also is not afraid to pick his battles -— and fight hard once he finds one. For example, he held up Bush’s nominee for the Department of the Interior until the president agreed not to divert revenue from public land sales in Nevada away from the state.
If all else fails, Reid can call in favors he has developed over his three decades in Washington.
“He knows how to push the levers of power to get help for the state,” Reid’s former communications manager Jim Manley said.