Reid urges colleagues to temper filibuster use
Says backing Obama was ‘dream job’
Sen. Harry Reid warned his colleagues not to abuse the filibuster, asked for a return to pork-barrel spending and begged them to find a way to limit the power of interest groups to spend money in election, saying Thursday that the fate of American democracy depends on it.
The Nevada Democrat who led his party to political heights of a 60-vote majority, then watched as it slipped away over the last six years, delivered a pair of swan song speeches, regretting nothing from his hard-nosed approach to politics, while doling out advice to all who would listen.
He is retiring at the end of this year, capping a 34-year career including four years in the House, then the last three decades in the Senate. He has said he would have stuck around for another term but for an exercise injury in 2015 that left him entirely out of action for weeks and still hobbles him.
For the last 12 years he’s led his party in the Senate, including herculean efforts to advance President Obama’s health care, stimulus and financial recovery
laws in 2009 and 2010, then shifting to play defense for Mr. Obama in the face of a rising Republican wave from 2011 on.
He also left a lasting legacy as the man who expanded the use of filibusters, then reversed himself and triggered the “nuclear option” to change Senate rules, curtailing the power of the filibuster so he could push Mr. Obama’s nominees through the chamber.
Stunningly, Mr. Reid urged his colleagues Thursday to be wary of the powerful legislative tool.
“I do hope my colleagues are able to temper their use of the filibuster. Otherwise, it will be gone,” he said.
His advice is unlikely to be heeded in a chamber whose partisanship he helped fan. Indeed, while most Senate Democrats showed up to hear his 80-minute floor speech Thursday morning, almost none of the chamber’s Republicans were in attendance.
“His time here has been one of a failure, obstruction and gridlock,” Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, told reporters earlier this week, summing up the GOP’s thoughts on their political opponent.
A number of Mr. Reid’s fellow senators remarked on his brusque approach to negotiations, or even to conversations. Phone calls with Mr. Reid often ended with him hanging up, even in midsentence, on whoever was on the line.
“It’s said that it’s better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both. As me and my colleagues here today, and those in the gallery probably agree with me, no individual in American politics embodies that sentiment today more than my colleague from Nevada,” said Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican who’s been Mr. Reid’s seatmate since 2011.
Mr. Reid, for his part, played politics hard. He regularly mocked President George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress, including calling one of them a “loser” in an interview with Politico, a Capitol Hill website, this week.
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, speaking at an unveiling of Mr. Reid’s official portrait Thursday evening, called him a “master” of legislating, and said he was a gentleman as a lawmaker, “very respectful of everyone’s point of view.”
For Democrats, Mr. Reid’s pugnacious approach was a virtue.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden delayed a trip to Canada to attend the portrait unveiling, and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton also attended, using the event to praise Mr. Reid while also doing a bit of post-election politicking herself, blasting an “epidemic of malicious fake news.”
“It’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences,” she said — though she didn’t specifically attribute her election loss to it.
Mr. Reid, in interviews with news outlets this week, said Democrats don’t need any major changes after the election. He blamed the results on FBI Director James B. Comey’s late-season announcement that he was renewing the investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s secret email server.
At one time Mr. Reid was considered one of the more conservative Democrats in the chamber, a pro-life gun rights supporter who introduced one of the strictest immigration crackdowns of the last few decades.
But he changed with his party, chasing it leftward, becoming a fierce advocate for illegal immigrants, a critical defender of abortion rights and one of the NRA’s most ardent critics.
And for the last eight years he considered his chief job to protect President Obama, crafting the legislative strategy that maneuvered Obamacare into law, then defending the White House from Republicans’ assaults for the rest of his term.
In his speech Thursday, Mr. Reid said working to advance the Obama agenda was “a dream job.”
His dedication to Mr. Obama was so thorough that earlier this year, he was the lone senator to vote to try to uphold the president’s veto of an anti-terrorism lawsuit bill.
Mr. Reid will retire as the longest-serving senator in the history of Nevada, topping by three days the tenure of John Jones, a Republican who served in the late 1800s.
And it was in Nevada where Mr. Reid made his deepest mark: siphoning billions of dollars to the state, single-handedly reshaping the federal court there and protecting it from becoming the dumping ground for the nation’s nuclear waste or for expansion of coal-fired power plants.
“They tried, but I won. They lost,” Mr. Reid said.
The list of legislative accomplishments under his name is slim. The Library of Congress shows him as the chief sponsor of 23 measures that became law, with most of them Nevada land-use issues. His biggest bills were measures in 2007 and 2013 to force more ethics disclosures and lobbying rules on Capitol Hill.
Where he shone was in shepherding his party’s priorities through. He orchestrated the Christmas Eve vote that first cleared Obamacare through the Senate, then, after losing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s seat in a special election, he turned to fast-track budget tools to overcome a GOP filibuster that threatened the final vote.
“As the senate Democratic leader, he got things such as health care reform and the president’s stimulus bill done, despite the odds,” said Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic operative who worked for Kennedy and then Mr. Reid.
As his official portrait was unveiled Thursday afternoon, Mr. Reid recognized in the crowd former Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who retired rather than run for re-election after casting the critical 60th vote for Obamacare.
“Ben Nelson gave up his career for something he believed in,” Mr. Reid said. “Ben, the nation owes you a lot. The people of Nebraska owe you a lot.”
But those kinds of votes cost Democrats. Mr. Reid saw his 60-seat effective majority evaporate over the next few years, including a nine-seat swing in 2014 that gave the GOP control of the chamber once again. This year, Democrats were convinced they’d retake control — but an election-night surge limited the GOP’s losses and left Republicans in control.
“He came to Washington with a functioning Democratic Party, the majority party of the country, and he leaves it a party in ruins. It’s April 1865, and the Democratic Party is Richmond. It’s a smoldering crater of what it once was,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican operative who’s tracked the Senate for years.
Mr. McKenna said Mr. Reid was instrumental in weakening Congress’ powers, choosing to embrace Mr. Obama and to oppose Mr. Bush at every turn, to the detriment of the Senate.
Tops on that list was his 2013 decision to trigger the “nuclear option,” changing filibuster rules to help Mr. Obama speed through his nominees. Now that same change will help President-elect Donald Trump push through his picks, with little Democrats can do to stop them.
“Senators are now much more concerned about their partisan identification. Congress has become either an adjunct to, or an agitator against the executive branch. It stopped being a co-equal branch,” Mr. McKenna said. “Harry Reid did his part to undermine the institution of the United States Senate.”
For his part, Mr. Reid said Congress gave up its power when it ceded earmarks, the pork-barrel spending that disappeared when the GOP won control of the House in 2010.
“Why should we as members of Congress give that authority to the White House?” Mr. Reid said. “Bring back earmarks.”
FAREWELL: Sen. Harry Reid, the retiring Nevada Democrat who led the Senate Democrats for a dozen years, implored his party to stay strong in 2017.
Hillary Clinton joined fellow Democrat, the retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Thursday as his official portrait was unveiled in Washington.