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.