Sen. Harry Reid, after eight years as majority leader, had to miss his first day as minority leader Tuesday as he recovers from a particularly violent exercise accident last week that left the right side of his face shattered. He also sustained three broken ribs.
Announcing he would not be on hand for Republicans’ big moment as they officially took control of the Senate, Reid’s aides also revealed that he was suffering from a concussion and had been ordered by his doctors to stay at home in Washington for an undetermined amount of time.
But while he was not in attendance, the Democratic leader’s presence was felt.
“Senator Reid is a former boxer. He’s tough. I know he’ll be back in fighting form soon enough. I wish him a speedy recovery,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said of his longtime parliamentary sparring partner.
Once he’s back, Reid will help dictate how the Senate functions over the next two years. Senate rules put great power in the minority leader’s hands, and as a practiced veteran of those obscure rules, the Nevada senator knows how to tie the chamber in knots when he so desires.
However, after the November elections gave nine additional seats, and the majority, to the Republicans, Reid pledged to be less obstruction-minded than he believed his Republican counterparts had been during his time as majority leader.
“I think the Republicans are going to find that the Democrats are a much better minority than, perhaps, they were, in terms of wanting to be constructive,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Democratic leader, who will temporarily fill in for Reid during his absence.
In a video his staff released Tuesday afternoon, a bandaged Reid promised to keep fighting. “We’re going to continue to fight for good things for this country,” he said. “We understand the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, the middle class is being squeezed literally out of existence.”
One remaining question is whether Reid, 75, will run for another six-year term in 2016. All signs point toward yes, and the prospect has some wondering if the next two years will look a lot like the past two years — with a Senate minority leader, unpopular at home, running for reelection on a pledge that he will be able to deliver more when his party wins the majority.
That’s what new Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did in 2014, and his bid to push amendments that boosted his own reelection often led to procedural clashes that effectively shut down the Senate.
Some centrist Democrats are embracing McConnell’s pledge of opening up debates, hoping to avoid the legislative graveyard of the previous four years that Democrats often bemoaned.
“I would sure hope that we wouldn’t subscribe to the same thing we ridiculed,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who is the co-sponsor of the first bill to come to the floor, an effort to force President Obama to approve the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Other Democrats suggested that the president — who has been reluctant to veto legislation and has previously relied on the Senate to bottle things up — is more willing now to break out his veto pen, which would require a 67-vote threshold for Republicans to overcome.
“The White House becomes a major player, and the president’s veto pen becomes majorly relevant, and 34 Democratic senators become decisive,” Durbin said.
Republican leaders predicted that it could take a while for rank-and-file senators to adapt to their new freedoms. “It’s going to be a little turbulent getting started,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the new majority whip. “But once we start getting things going and people offer amendments and they get to vote on them, I think even the Democrats are going to say: ‘Hey, this is pretty good. At least we’re having a chance to get votes.’ ”
The partisan breakdown, 54 Republicans and 46 members of the Democratic caucus, is almost identical to the deficit that Reid found himself in when he first became minority leader 12 years ago, when Republicans held 55 seats and seemed to have a stranglehold on the majority.
At that time, he famously declared that he “would rather dance than fight,” and over the next two years he fought with the Bush White House over its handling of the Iraq war and domestic policy. Sometimes he knotted up the chamber and other times he let key things go through, including two Supreme Court justices.
That stint as minority leader came after he had safely secured a full six-year term. This time he has to position himself for victory and his party to win back the majority.
Democrats who had been briefed on his accident had been expecting the worst when they visited him Tuesday morning.
“I was pleasantly surprised today. He’s made substantial progress in a short period of time. He was lucid, on his game, completely engaged when it came to the issues and debate that we are now facing,” Durbin said, explaining that Reid’s body was slung against a cabinet when an exercise band snapped. “Imagine going through the windshield of a car, what your face might look like. Well, the right side of his face is pretty badly beaten, with a lot of broken bones and bruising and discolorations, and then add three or four broken ribs to it.”
Reid’s video appearance was designed to appeal to voters back home. He made light of the injury by mentioning boxers Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, whose fights in Las Vegas are regular sellouts.
“I didn’t get this black eye by sparring with Manny, by challenging Floyd Mayweather,” Reid said. “I didn’t go bull riding. I wasn’t riding a motorcycle. I was exercising in my new home.”