Shortly after securing his place as the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate, Nevada’s Harry Reid had a message for President Bush: “I will not shirk from my responsibility to stand up and fight for Nevada values and Democratic principles.”
The warning came after Bush made a post-election call to Reid, who easily won a fourth term November 2 and then rose from being the Democrats’ whip to minority leader hours later when Sen. Tom Daschle conceded to former Rep. John Thune in South Dakota.
As Daschle’s loyal lieutenant for six years, Reid spent much of his time counting votes and making sure Senate Democrats were unified. His work paid off. The only other potential candidate for minority leader, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D.-Conn.), quickly backed away from a challenge to Reid. Democrats plan to formally vote for their new leader next month.
Plays the Game
Republicans who hope the Senate will be less divisive with Daschle gone might be in for a surprise, according to people who have followed Reid’s career. As whip, Reid gathered the votes for the Daschle-orchestrated filibusters of President Bush’s judicial nominees. While some Democrats broke ranks, the strategy worked and 10 nominees were blocked.
“He is a mechanic in the background,” said Chuck Muth, a former executive director of the American Conservative Union (ACU) who lived in Las Vegas for 14 years. “Republicans should not underestimate what this guy’s capable of doing. He knows how to play the game.”
Reid brings a somewhat more moderate record (lifetime ACU rating: 21%) to the job compared with some of his Democratic colleagues from the Northeast, but he has also cast some decisive votes over his 22-year career in the House and Senate to cement his favorable standing with liberal interest groups.
He opposed the nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court and also voted against John Ashcroft’s confirmation as attorney general in 2001. As whip, he derailed the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals by requiring Republicans to muster 60 votes to cut off debate and proceed to an up-or-down vote. After seven failed cloture votes, Estrada eventually withdrew from consideration.
Like many Southern or Western Democrats before him, Reid gradually moved to the left after first securing office, especially in the years preceding his election as Democrat whip, according to the voting scorecard kept by the liberal Americans For Democratic Action (ADA). After winning election to the House in 1982 and the Senate in 1986, Reid’s ADA scores registered as low as 55%. Since 1995, however, he has scored 100% three times.
“He runs to the left in the four years after he’s elected and runs to the right in the two years before he’s elected,” said Dan Burdish, a former executive director of the Nevada GOP from 1995 to 1999.
Burdish oversaw the hotly contested 1998 Senate race that pitted Reid against then-GOP Rep. John Ensign. Reid squeaked out a victory by 428 votes. (Ensign ran for the Senate again in 2000 and won. )
As someone who studied Reid during the 1998 race, Burdish described him as good at the “nitty-gritty” work required of a whip, but not so skilled as a Democratic spokesman. Daschle, by comparison, relished the opportunity to chat with reporters and make television appearances.
Former Nevada Democratic Party Chairman Paul Henry, who once worked for Reid, predicted his old boss would make an effective leader who might be able to call himself majority leader some day. “This is a guy who’s a workhorse, not a show horse,” said Henry. “This is a guy who is extremely disciplined. He’s never wavered from basic philosophies. This is a man who is clearly a moderate, if not conservative Democrat.”
Yet, even though Reid might have voted with Republicans on the Iraq war and in some cases against abortion, Henry said he’s not one to compromise on his core beliefs, just as Reid suggested after his conversation with Bush on November 3.
Some of Reid’s votes–most notably for the ban on partial-birth abortions and in opposition to the Roe v. Wade decision–caused alarm among abortion rights advocates. After Daschle lost to Thune, some attempted to mount a campaign on behalf of Dodd as minority leader, but Reid had already secured too much support.
His 55% score from the National Right to Life Committee last year was one of the highest among Democrats. Conversely, NARAL Pro-Choice America gave him a 29% rating, rather low for a Democrat.
Despite Reid’s modest score, Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said Reid is certainly no friend of the pro-life movement. “With Reid, I think if you look at his whole congressional record, including his time in the House, you would see an erosion or a movement in the wrong direction, which I would attribute to his rise in the leadership,” Johnson said. “The great majority of the Democratic caucus in the Senate is hard-core pro-abortion.”
Johnson cited Reid’s vote last year on a procedural motion against the Mexico City policy instituted by former President Ronald Reagan to cut off U.S. funding to organizations that promote abortion in foreign countries. President Bill Clinton repealed the policy, but President Bush restored it in 2001.
Reid has also made calculated votes on the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. Before ultimately giving his approval to the final measures, he voted for alternative proposals that would have gutted the bills.
Reid employed the same tactic on anti-gun legislation. He voted against renewing the semi-automatic gun ban enacted by the Democrat-led Congress in 1994 and later signed by Clinton. Yet on other lesser-known anti-gun bills, Reid voted with the majority of his liberal colleagues.
Following Party Line
“This was an election year for him and so he voted right on the semi-auto ban,” said Erich Pratt, a spokesman for Gun Owners of America, which gave Reid an F rating. “He’ll throw an occasional bone to the pro-gun side, even though in most situations his default position is to follow the party line.”
Reid’s lifetime score from Americans For Democratic Action is 80%, which reflects his votes banning partial-birth abortions, opposing the renewal of the gun ban and supporting the Iraq war. By comparison, Sen. John Kerry’s lifetime ADA score is 92%.
“With this particular member, knowing Harry Reid, he’s just a good guy. I don’t think this indicates he’s unstable in any way,” said Don Kusler, a spokesman for the group. “He’s one of those folks who may be rare in divided partisan politics who goes about his business looking at each issue and what it means to him and his constituents.”
In contrast, the American Conservative Union puts Reid’s score at 21%, which spokesman Ian Walters said would typically classify him as a moderate-to-liberal Democrat. But a few calculated votes could skew the rating, Walters warned.
“This guy will talk a good game, but he is as partisan as they get and just as mean,” said Muth, the former Republican operative in Nevada. “No one should be mistaken about that nice, quiet demeanor of Reid’s. He can really lull you into a sense of security, but he’ll turn around and bite you really fast.”
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