Posts Tagged ‘Harry Reid’

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Harry Reid Says Something Smart

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

by Brien Jackson

In my last post a few days ago, I off-handedly remarked that gay rights seemed, to me, to be akin to a progressive version of the right’s critique of Obama’s handling of Iran; if only he would announce his support, everything would change. Nevermind the institutional limits or the lack of any ability to do anything particularly concrete. When I wrote that, however, I had completely forgotten about the persistent progressive criticism of Harry Reid as Senate Majority Leader, which seems like a much more useful comparison. And I suspect we’re going to be seeing a lot more of this sort of criticism after this:

Still, there’s little doubt that Reid will have his hands full just keeping his caucus in line — especially given its geographically and ideologically diverse makeup.

Reid says he expects the tactic of gentle persuasion to work best, given the size of his Senate Democratic flock and the political divergences within it. “I don’t dictate how people vote,” he said in an interview this month. “If it’s an important vote, I try to tell them how important it is to the Senate, the country, the president … But I’m not very good at twisting arms. I try to be more verbal and non-threatening. So there are going to be — I’m sure — a number of opportunities for people who have different opinions not to vote the way that I think they should. But that’s the way it is. I hold no grudges.”

I’ve only read a couple of posts on this so far, but generally speaking it seems that the criticism is that Harry Reid is weak. And it’s true that the quote does make him sound like something of a weakling, and it’s also true that Harry Reid as Majority Leader is pretty weak, but it also seems like pointing out that the reason a lot of this is so is that the Majority Leader position is just a fundamentally weak role. I’ve noted it many times, both here and elsewhere, but the problem most people make in judging Reid is to assume that the Senate Majority leader is analogous to the Speaker of the House. That just isn’t so. For a variety of reasons, the former doesn’t wield anywhere near the power the latter does. And that’s the way the Senate likes it. Power is concentrated with committee chairman and swing votes, not with leadership. And given the long duration of a Senate term, leadership really doesn’t even have uch of an ability to use the ballot box against marginal members. Mary Landrieu doesn’t have to run for re-election until 2014. How many votes is she going to cast today that are going to remain hot issues 6 years from now? And as Reid roughly found out when he tried to remove Lieberman from his seniority in the caucus, the Majority Leader does not get to dictate intra-caucus issues to nearly the degree the Speaker of the House does, mostly because the fact that his caucus is about 1/4 the size of the House caucus means each member has much more involvement in the question.

It also seems worth pointing out that Reid is right on the substance. It’s true that the Democratic caucus is 60 members strong, but it’s also accurate that this really isn’t an accuratte assessment of the number of votes they’re likely to have on any question. Putting aside whether or not the caucus can stay in line, two of those 60 members are Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy, who are going to miss most votes due to health reasons and effectively leave you with 58 members most of the time. With that in mind, I actually think Reid is doing a pretty good job of framing the problem, from a political standpoint. If he were out and about giving credence to the notion that Democrats can do whatever they want because they have 60 Senators, the default story for any failed cloture vote would be how Reid couldn’t keep the caucus in line. Aside fro being bad for Reid personally, that sort of primary narrative gives cover to the people who break ranks, by casting it as primarily Reid’s fault. The way Reid framed it, however, as the Senate, and the Democratic caucus in particular, being a much more individualistic chamber, and with members largely making up their own minds vote to vote, makes it much easier to construct a narrative blaming marginal Democrats by name for blocking votes, making it much riskier for them to do so. Do Ben Nelson or Mary Landrieu want to wake up to see a headline reading “Sen. Nelson/Landrieu Kills Healthcare Reform?” I rather doubt it. And that sort of pressure makes it harder for them to break ranks in meaningful ways.

Harry Reid does and says a lot of stupid things, but this isn’t one of them.

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The Secret To Passing EFCA

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

More Republicans in the Senate!

Unions will (and should) work hard on a state-by-state basis to keep Democratic lawmakers on board (and I promise to do my part to get my own wavering Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet on board), but it seems to me there’s a much easier way to enforce unity: Make Harry Reid choose between getting every Democrat on board, or ending his political career.

This is not a far-fetched idea. In fact, the inevitable whining, screaming and moaning from Establishment Democrats aside, it would be relatively simple to pull off, and Reid – a smart politician – would know that labor could pull it off in a state like his.

Nevada is a conservative-leaning state, but is also both relatively cheap for political advertising/campaigns, and has an extremely strong labor movement, with roughly 14 percent of its workforce organized. Reid is running for reelection in 2010 in a state that tends to have extremely close elections. The labor movement, therefore, could make a very simple proposal to the Senate Majority Leader: Reid can either A) Schedule the votes for EFCA, during the crucial cloture vote to stop a filibuster get every Democratic senator to vote for cloture, and then get 51 Democrats to vote for it on final passage or B) Not do A, and therefore end his political career knowing that organized labor will put $2 or $3 million into an independent third-party progressive candidate against him in the general election.

Apparently the logic is something like this; either something that Harry Reid has no control over happens, and every Democrat votes the same way, or, apparently, we’re going to turn Reid’s seat over to a Republican. Because, clearly, adding to the ranks of the Republican Senate caucus will be a terrific way to help EFCA pass.

It’s times like these when I think Al Giordano really had the best characterization of Sirota; he’s a child. He has a childlike view of the way politics works, and he doesn’t really take much time to learn that he’s wrong. I mean, he doesn’t ven seem to be aware that states have to balance their budgets. I’ve made this point before, but the Senate is not the House, and the Senate Majority Leader is not the Speaker of the House. Harry Reid really has no mechanism by which to force any individual member to vote a certain way. Senators are elected for 6 year terms, inoculating them somewhat from the threat of being in a re-election battle, and they’re elected statewide, which creates a different political dynamic than the one in the House. Moreover, since there’s only 100 Senators, as opposed to 435 members of the House, each Senator enjoys a good deal of individual influence over the body that just doesn’t exist in the Senate.

Anyone who’s read my blog knows where I stand on EFCA, and how much I want to see it passed. But it’s going to be the sort of thing you finesse, not the sort of thing you force. To employ the obligatory bad sports metaphor, it’s a screen pass, not 3 yards and a cloud of dust. Nothing is going to get done until Al Franken is seated, and Democrats have 59 seated Senators. Those 59 members, plus Arlen Specter, would be an assumed 60 votes, but it isn’t hard to imagine some Democrats waivering. Mary Landrieu previously supported the bill, but she doesn’t have to run for re-election until 2014, so she very well may flip, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Blanche Lincoln is running for re-election in Arkansas, where Wal-Mart reigns supreme, so it may be politically dicey for her to support the bill. On the other hand, these Democrats could oppose the bill, while still voting for cloture, thus enabling it to pass; but I suspect the effect won’t be lost in the slight of hand. And, at the same time, labor really has been outpositioned on this issue. The right has enshrined the idea that EFCA eliminates the secret ballot, and EFCA’s supporters haven’t yet pushed that back, nor have they defined exactly why EFCA is necessary. That alone may make passing EFCA in this Congress impossible. But there will be other Congresses, and there’s a good possibility that Democrats will increase their Senate caucus in 2010, making it easier to pass the bill then.

But David Sirota will still be an idiot.

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Reid

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

After mulling a few things over in this thread over at Balloon Juice, I’m actually sort of embarrassed to say I’ve, somewhat, come away with a little bit of sympathy for Harry Reid. Namely, the more I thought about it, the less convinced I was that there was really much he, or anyone else, could have done differently in the 110th Congress to acheive different legislative outcomes. There were simply too many constraints.

First of all, there’s the constraints of the position itself. The Senate Majority Leader is simply not a uniquely powerful position, certainly not in the way the Speaker of the House is. There are just different institutional realities in the Senate, from the various privilidges afforded members, the relatively small size of the body, the 6 year terms, and so on that leave most of the influence in the hands of individual members. With that in mind, the real power in the Senate is concentrated in the hands of committee chairs, and there’s very little the majority leader can do to impose his will on his caucus made up of people who don’t have to seek re-election all that often and whose vote accounts for a much larger share of the needed tally than it would in the House.

Secondly, there was the unique nature of the chamber he was operating in. On top of holding a razor thin manjority than included moderate-to-conservative members like Nelson, Landireu, Lincoln, Pryor, Tester, Baucus, and Bayh, Reid was also dealing with a fairly unique opposition party. I may be wrong, but off the top of my head, I can’t recall any Senate minority in the position the Republicans held in the last Congress acting as they did. Normally, if your party controlled the White House, and the President was a deeply unpopular lame duck, you’d let the Congressional majority pass their bills and let the onus fall on the President to veto them. But Senate Republicans instead decided to inexplicably run interference for Bush, and kill as many bills as possible in the Senate with filibusters. And yes, that made Reid look bad at the time, but in retrospect that may be because no other minority has never undertaken a strategy like that. And if Senate Republicans had taken a more obvious approach, would we still be holding Reid responsible for Presidential vetoes?

And that brings us to the final, most obvious, constraint under which Reid and Congressional Democrats were operating; President Bush. It’s rather odd how the fact that Republicans still controlled the White House is sort of shrugged off or disregarded in criticizing Reid, given that the President has the unquestioned authority to veto an bill that comes out of Congress. And Bush vetoed SCHIP for crying out loud, something that passed with overwhelming support in Congress. So it’s not clear to me how things, ultimately, would have been any different had Reid been able to pass every aspect of the Democratic agenda in the Senate, when they clearly would have just been met with a veto from the President.

Now I know a lot of this sounds like excuse making, and far be it from me to make excuses for harry Reid, but I think that it’s important progressives understand these kind of working realities in legislating if we’re going to be effective at moving a progressive Democratic agenda. At the same time, conditions in the 111th Congress, with 59 members in Reid’s Congress and a friendly President, are obviously much different than they were in the 110th, and if Reid proves ineffective at getting the agenda through the Senate this time around, then it’s probably time for him to go.

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