The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some Senate Democrats won’t say whether they’ll back Harry Reid

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) meets with staffers early in the morning of Sept. 9, 2014. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

When Senate Democrats meet for the first time next week since Election Day, Harry Reid is expected to easily win reelection as their leader. He's raised millions of dollars for his colleagues, served as the public face of GOP disgust and tried, though failed, to protect some of his colleagues by blocking legislation from votes in the past year.

But the loss of as many as nine seats has only intensified the anger and frustration that's been brewing among a small band of Senate Democrats, who suggested Wednesday that they might withhold support for their leader.

Reid (D-Nev.) still enjoys the support of his top three lieutenants, Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who said through aides on Wednesday that they will back him again. Other rank-and-file Democrats are expected to close ranks. In the words of Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), "It's his -- if he still wants it."

But a small group of moderates who say they have a deeply principled, if naive belief that they're supposed to be legislating on a regular basis, will head into closed-door meetings with the hope of extracting assurances that Democrats will be more willing to cut deals with members of both parties and allow votes on all sorts of legislation. They have very little sway over operations of the Senate, but see the results of Tuesday's elections a signal that things must change quickly.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), a first-term senator who's clashed with top leaders before, declined twice during an interview on Wednesday to express support for Reid.

"I think we’re going to have a discussion about how we move forward and I think until we have that discussion, I don’t think anyone should be making any judgements about leadership," she said.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) was especially explicit, calling the Democratic defeat "a real ass-whuppin."

"Harry, let us vote, let’s do something. It’s easier for me to go home and explain what I voted for and against than to explain why I don’t vote at all," he said, adding later: "We’re going to find out" about Reid.

And Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who announced on Wednesday that he plans to stay with the Democratic caucus despite being an independent senator, couldn't say if his decision to stick with the caucus mean supporting Reid.

"I can only make one hard decision a day," he said in an interview. Announcing his decision to stick with Democrats was all he could muster on Wednesday.

Heitkamp, Manchin and King have been meeting with other moderate Democrats, including Tim Kaine (Va.) and Mark Warner (Va.), among others. The hope is to extract some agreement from Reid to allow up-or-down votes on Republican amendments and on legislation that has stalled needlessly for several months.

They should be heartened by what they heard on Wednesday from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who vowed in his first post-election press conference to restore the Senate to some semblance of the past. There will be an open amendment process, he said. Maybe votes on Fridays. Senators will need to "burn the midnight oil" to cut deals.

Privately, many Democrats are deeply skeptical that McConnell will stick to those assurances. But others like Heitkamp, Manchin and King are glad to hear say that some sense of the past will be restored.

Moving forward, Heitkamp said she'd like to see immediate work on completing a series of spending bills, but she conceded: "I don't think we’ll have the time to get it all done." So Congress should quickly pass another short-term spending bill, begin work to authorize construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and pass a series of other less significant bills that need to be finished by January.

"I’ve heard by folks like Ted Cruz who say we should do nothing during the lame-duck," she said. "I think that is absolutely the wrong response to this election, which is 'Oh, we’re going to take two months off.' Really? Well the American people will say, what part of Tuesday night didn’t they get?"

Other Democrats agreed it's time to make some changes.

Blumenthal suggested in an interview that there are some quick and easy ways to reach bipartisan accord and demonstrate progress to the American people. Lawmakers could quickly come together on making greater changes to the nation's veterans' health-care system, on defense matters, immigration reform and ways to curb sexual assault on college campuses.

"I think both Republicans and Democrats will be held accountable if we fail to end some of the gridlock and paralysis that has been so confounding to the American public," he said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said that after conversations with colleagues in both parties, she believes there's clearly a desire to work on tax reform — including ways to curb the practice of corporations relocating overseas to ease their tax burden. And she said she thought it should be easy to quickly confirm a slate of noncontroversial ambassador nominees.

Even as she pleaded for bipartisan agreement, she couldn't help but get a dig in against Republicans, including Cruz, who spent most of the election season labeling Reid as the face of congressional gridlock.

"When you hear about bills sitting on Harry Reid's desk, a lot of them are bipartisan," she said. "But many have been held up by Republicans, despite House passage."

Bottom line: Reid should be easily reelected as leader. But until votes are cast behind closed doors, at least some Democrats will be venting more publicly than normal about how they wish things had been different -- and how they expect things to be different in the future.