Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016 | 1 a.m.
That Harry Reid, the junior Democratic senator from Nevada, was an anti-abortion, anti-immigration centrist with a chip on his shoulder, befitting the image of the scrapper from the tiny mining town of Searchlight.
This Harry Reid, the one who this month delivered his farewell speech and later unveiled his official portrait as a former majority leader, still has the chip. But he has transformed himself into a leading progressive voice for the rights of women and undocumented immigrants, a constant and cutting critic of the tactics of Republicans and a singular figure lamenting the flow of undisclosed money into American politics.
“Maybe I was trying to be somebody I wasn’t,” a reflective Reid said during an interview in the Senate office he will soon vacate, suggesting that he had overcorrected to escape a liberal tag back home. “It didn’t last long.”
Most Americans know who Reid is these days. He is the soft-spoken man who slugs it out with Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on the floor over filibusters, the tactician who delivered the 60 votes for President Barack Obama’s health care law (“It was really, really hard”), the leader who didn’t quit after a punishing accident while exercising at his home, the guy who made billionaires Charles and David Koch the poster boys for unrestricted campaign spending.
“There is no question this whole institution of Congress has been adversely affected by the Citizens United case,” Reid said, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended limits on outside campaign spending. “The country is up for sale right now.”
During his nearly 18 years in various leadership positions in his party, Reid has alarmed his allies and angered his enemies with his sometimes hostile, bitter commentary and personal attacks. And the tight rein he held on the Senate in the face of Republican resistance and obstruction during Obama’s tenure has not gone over well with Republicans.
“For me, his time here has been one of a failure, obstruction and gridlock,” Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming said, unprompted, during a Dec. 13 news conference with his fellow Republican leaders. “All you need to do is look at what happened when, as majority leader, he wouldn’t even allow members of his own party to offer amendments on the floor of the United States Senate, which is what drove him from majority leader to minority leader.”
Reid, 77, is leaving with his party in the minority, Republicans in control of the House and Senate, and Donald Trump, a candidate Reid regularly ridiculed, heading into the presidency. In some ways, Reid said, the defeat of Hillary Clinton, his former colleague, will actually ease his departure.
Reid, who has never embraced the social rituals of the capital, was the guest of honor at a recent White House dinner with Barack and Michelle Obama and a hand-picked guest list of Senate colleagues. Reid said they celebrated some of their victories and chewed over the idea of President Trump, who threatens to undo much of what Barack Obama and Reid accomplished together.
Reid said he was not as forlorn as he once was, given Trump’s apparent softening of some positions, including to seemingly modulate his call to deport younger undocumented immigrants now living legally under an Obama administration directive. “I’m not as frightened as I once was,” Reid said. “That doesn’t mean I’m not frightened.”
Despite some grousing from fellow Democrats, he has no second thoughts about his 2013 decision to force through a Senate procedural change allowing approval of most nominees by simple majority, a decision that now means Democrats cannot mount filibusters against Trump Cabinet appointees.
He said the decision led to lifetime appointments for 98 circuit and district court judges, saved the National Labor Relations Board and allowed Democrats to break the logjam of stalled confirmations.
“I’m glad I did it,” said Reid, suggesting “it is just a matter of time” before the filibuster is abolished altogether. “We cleared the decks.”
Reid is proud of his legislative achievements, including environmental measures and projects he pushed. He chortles at the memory of his successful campaign to convert Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont from Republican to independent in 2001, a change that gave Democrats temporary control of the Senate. Reid said he wooed Jeffords on the floor, right under the noses of Republicans.
As he eyes retirement, Reid said he has received offers from law firms associated with Nevada’s gambling industry and other individuals but is restricted by Senate rules from pursuing business opportunities until he is out of the Senate. He intends to keep his residence in Washington, but he and his wife, Landra, will spend more time in Nevada.
“We will keep both our places and see what happens,” Reid said.
Always one to do things his own way, Reid broke with the tradition of having his portrait ceremony occur after his retirement. Senate rules say a painting cannot be donated to the archives while a senator is in office, he said.
“I didn’t want to come back here with people I don’t know,” he said. “I wanted to do it with people I know.”
“The painting will be hanging around here someplace, and they can have it after the first of the year,” he said.
The painting may be hanging around, but Reid won’t. And no matter your view of the senator, the Senate won’t be the same.