With Obama in Charge, Reid Returns to Preferred Role

With a Democrat in the White House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has returned to his role as a dealmaker.
With a Democrat in the White House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has returned to his role as a dealmaker. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 7, 2009

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid defined the terms of his relationship with the newly elected president when he announced in early January: "I do not work for Barack Obama. I work with him."

Like many of Reid's pronouncements, the statement did not come out quite right. It suggested a degree of bravado that the Nevada Democrat does not possess, and diminished the bond that developed between Reid and Obama during their four years together in the Senate. Yet it was vintage Reid, awkward but pointed, reminding an ambitious president of his boundaries while establishing Reid as a singular force and perhaps Obama's most important ally outside the administration.

Friends and colleagues say the 69-year-old inside operator felt liberated by the 2008 election. Reid was never comfortable in his public attack-dog role during the Bush years, and it showed. He lost stature in Washington and faced sagging support at home. With Obama in the White House, Reid can return to his roots and his preferred role as a dealmaker, a role that is already yielding dividends for his party.

The Senate this year has passed five major bills, including the $787 billion emergency stimulus package, the long-stalled D.C. House Voting Rights Act and a children's health insurance bill that President George W. Bush vetoed twice. Having 58 Democratic votes makes a big difference, but senators in both parties also credit Reid's accommodating approach toward Republicans for minimizing procedural delays.

There are still glitches. A $410 billion spending bill from last year stalled Thursday night when Reid was unable to muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster threat. GOP leaders were able to extract a promise that a dozen more Republican amendments will be considered, delaying final passage of the legislation until next week.

Although Reid says his priority is to ensure Obama's success, he runs the Senate on his own terms. When the 111th Congress convened in January, the first bill to hit the chamber floor was not Obama's promised expansion of children's health coverage but long-stalled federal land legislation that the majority leader wanted to see move forward.

During final stimulus talks, as Obama worked with congressional negotiators to pare popular provisions, including a middle-class tax cut, one notable measure was added: $8 billion to fund high-speed rail. The culprit was Reid, who will face reelection in 2010 and has championed a bullet train between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

During the spending debate this week, Reid faced down Obama over the inclusion of more than 8,500 pet projects, known as earmarks. A former member of the Appropriations Committee, Reid dismisses the anti-earmark crusade as little more than a fad, led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and endorsed by the White House, and says he has no intention of surrendering Congress's authority to designate how federal money is spent.

The projects stayed in the bill. But unlike with the stimulus, the White House did not throw its full lobbying force into passing the legislation, and for now at least, it is stuck.

"It's not a matter of substance," Reid said of earmarks in an interview. "All these things come and go. Term limits -- all the Republicans were in favor of term limits. They were all in favor of the line-item veto. Now we're on earmarks. We don't have term limits. We don't have line-item veto. It will go away."

The key to Reid's power is what he doesn't have -- the two votes that would secure a filibuster-proof 60-vote Democratic majority. Unlike House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose governing majority is absolute, Reid must cross the aisle to pass just about anything. That dynamic has turned the Senate into the primary battleground for shaping much of the Obama agenda.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel described Reid as "kind of like a third-base coach. He knows all the senators' strengths and vulnerabilities. He's clear about what he can do. Fundamentally, he's a realist."

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