With Obama in Charge, Reid Returns to Preferred Role

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."

It was Reid who dreamed up the idea of nominating Republican Sen. Judd Gregg to be commerce secretary. The Senate leader sensed that the conservative Gregg was enamored of Obama. He thought Gregg's background in budget matters could prove useful, and Gregg's home state of New Hampshire has a Democratic governor. Assuming the contested Senate race in Minnesota was resolved in Al Franken's favor, Reid reasoned, Gregg's replacement could become the 60th Democratic vote.

The plan fizzled. Gov. John Lynch appointed a Republican, and Gregg withdrew his nomination because of ideological differences and returned to become a leading Senate critic of Obama's budget blueprint. "I think it was a good idea. I'm sorry it didn't work out," Reid said.

Colleagues describe Reid and Obama as a political odd couple, different in background and style. A Mormon convert, Reid grew up poor in a gritty mining town and scraped his way to the top. He was an amateur boxer and moonlighted during law school as a U.S. Capitol police officer. His political skills were forged in rough-and-tumble Las Vegas.

Soaring speeches are not in the Reid repertoire. With his tendency to mutter, he would surely mangle a slogan such as "Yes We Can." He sometimes stakes a position before thinking through the consequences, including when he unsuccessfully sought to block the appointment of Roland W. Burris as Obama's Senate replacement.

But Reid and Obama are conciliators who resist partisan confrontation and who have put considerable effort into assuaging Republicans. They also share a stubborn streak.

In one of their few heated confrontations, Reid summoned Obama back from the campaign trail for a vote last summer, forcing the candidate to reschedule an appearance at a South Florida synagogue. Reid said that Obama was angry about the inconvenience but that he made the vote.

"Harry is a person, when you cross him, he remembers," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "But he always has a fundamental inclination to be fair. He has a great instinctive understanding of human nature. And he's patient."

GOP senators said they like doing business with the new Reid. "He's very pragmatic. He's a vote counter, not a policy wonk," said Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), one of three Republicans who supported the stimulus bill.

Reid took Obama's measure when the Illinois Democrat arrived in the Senate four years ago and met with Reid to discuss committee assignments. Obama wanted a seat on the prestigious Foreign Relations Committee, which was already full. He was pushy but respectful. "I was impressed by this new senator, how determined he was to get what he wanted," Reid said. "He did it in a nice way, but he was very, very firm."

Later in 2005, amid a GOP lobbying scandal, Reid tapped Obama to lead Senate ethics reform and was so struck by the junior senator's radar for voter disgust that he encouraged him to think of one day running for president. Reid will not confirm that the two discussed the 2008 race, and he never endorsed a primary candidate. But several people close to Reid said he was one of the first senators to urge Obama to enter the contest.

Obama's determination resurfaced during the stimulus debate, when he insisted that a large portion of the package be designated to tax cuts. The White House even fought to include a $70 billion fix to the alternative minimum tax, Reid said, because it could be packaged as middle-class tax relief -- even though the adjustment merely extended existing law, and Congress was prepared to approve it in a separate bill. That would have freed up more money for additional spending measures that Reid and most Democrats preferred.

"He felt he had made a commitment to give tax relief to 90 percent of the American people. If we'd have taken it out, he wouldn't be able to say that," Reid said.

But when Reid called Obama three weeks into negotiations to report that he did not have the votes to pass the bill, the president responded by granting Reid broad authority to cut and paste. "We'll do what it takes," he told the Senate leader. "If we have to knock some money off this thing, we'll do it. It's important we get it done. You do it."

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