Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid faced the first internal opposition to his grip on power Thursday as at least six Democrats rejected his bid for another leadership term during an emotional meeting following last week’s drubbing in the midterm elections.
Quelling a small but vocal rebellion, Reid (D-Nev.) won reelection to another term atop the caucus, now as minority leader after eight years in the majority. But his victory came only after a 31 / 2-hour meeting that became a forum for political grievances and a rollout of an expanded leadership team meant to balance the caucus’s ideological and regional diversity.
Four straight election victories had produced unwavering support and increasing power for Reid in the Democratic caucus, but the repudiation on Nov. 4 tested his clout.
On Thursday, he listened to his critics complain about the party’s campaign agenda, and some demanded that he steer away from confrontation with Republicans.
Instead of the usual voice vote for leadership positions, the caucus — which will be at least eight seats smaller in the next Congress — forced a roll-call vote. Dissenters wanted to go on the record with their opposition to their leader. The six who said publicly that they opposed him include both of Virginia’s senators: Mark R. Warner, who narrowly won reelection last week, and Timothy M. Kaine, who previously served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Reid said he got the message.
“We’re going to expand our leadership. We’re going to do things a little differently, a little different approach,” Reid said as he left the Old Senate Chamber, where the meeting was held.
Reid was flanked by his new team — three men and four women — a rare sight for a leader who has preferred to address reporters alone.
In a bid to placate liberals who feel that Democrats didn’t defend their agenda, Reid tapped a new progressive icon, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), for a newly created post helping with policy and messaging. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) assumed the leadership of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the caucus’s political arm, a move that could appease senators from conservative-leaning states.
Tester’s 2012 reelection victory is viewed as a model for other Democrats who come from conservative terrain. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was appointed chairman of a committee that handles outreach to outside allies and activists, a post that was once held by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The leadership moves came a day after Reid acquiesced to the moderate wing of his caucus to hold a vote next week that, if approved, would allow construction of an energy pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. That will come too late for several Democrats who lost last week and had been pushing for months for a chance to vote against the wishes of President Obama.
If approved — the House intends to pass its version Friday — Obama is likely to veto the measure. But the Senate’s vote will have given Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) a chance to demonstrate her independence from the White House ahead of her Dec. 6 runoff election.
Depending on the outcome of Landrieu’s race, Democrats will have 46 or 47 seats, with a chance to snap back into the majority in two years when the political map tilts back in their favor. That possibility made Thursday’s meeting all the more urgent, but many senators departed unsure of what direction the caucus will take.
Several senators said tears were shed during the meeting.
“There’s no way for a meeting like the one we had today not to be emotional,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “We were saying goodbye to some really good friends.”
Murphy, who said he voted for Reid to remain Democratic leader, suggested there “were views all over the map” and counted himself among those who put most of the blame on Obama’s dismal approval ratings in the battleground states this year.
“There were a lot of factors well outside of the control of the Senate Democratic caucus in play in this election,” Murphy said. “This was, whether we like it or not, a referendum on the president in a lot of these states.”
Like any party facing defeat, Democrats remained divided over whether their policy agenda was lacking or whether there was just an inability to communicate that agenda.
“The Democrats need a stronger message for the middle class and to people that aspire to the middle class. They haven’t reached voters with that message,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “It wasn’t said emphatically enough or, for whatever reasons, persuasively enough.”
Heading into the 2014 election season, Senate Democrats tried to run a campaign designed to replicate the heavy turnout of liberal voters that Obama so successfully used in his 2012 reelection — while also instructing their candidates to distance themselves from the president.
Rather than touting their work with the president, Democrats repeated a mantra of poll-tested issues designed to appeal to pockets of liberal voters, including raising the minimum wage and guaranteeing equal pay for women. The message had some success, with Democrats in some states increasing turnout among certain groups of voters.
It was a dramatic failure with white voters, more than 60 percent of whom supported Republicans, according to national exit polls last week.
“The bottom line is, middle-class voters didn’t see a difference — particularly white middle-class voters — didn’t see a difference between the parties,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the No. 3 Democratic leader, who helped craft the agenda.
Warren is taking a position inside Schumer’s policy and communications shop, where she will focus on advancing her agenda of trying to rein in Wall Street.
Klobuchar and Tester are both members of the class first elected in 2006, which gave Reid the majority. Each of them won reelection in 2012. They are part of a large, vocal and ambitious bloc inside the caucus whose allegiance to leadership often runs first through Schumer, who oversaw the 2006 campaigns.
Over the course of the marathon session, Reid said, 28 members spoke. “Speech after speech after speech” focused on his colleagues’ concerns for the middle class, he said.
But Reid rejected suggestions his leadership style hurt Democrats. He recounted dozens of occasions in the past year when he said Republicans had blocked attempts to hold votes on bipartisan legislation or to amend various bills.
“This is not get-even time. I do not intend to run the Democratic caucus like the Republican caucus has been run in the minority,” he said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), also from the 2006 class, told reporters that there was a secret ballot but no actual public opponent to Reid. At least six of the Democratic senators — Kaine, Landrieu, McCaskill, Warner, Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) — voted against Reid and were strident in their criticism of his stewardship, senators said.
Some Democrats said Reid was too focused on procedural battles with Republicans that were important inside the Senate — producing record levels of GOP filibusters — but did little to persuade middle-of-the-road voters to side with them.
“I voted for a change, and that change was not voting for this leadership,” said Manchin, whose state lost Senate and House seats previously held by Democrats.
“The people in West Virginia spoke very loud and clear: They want us to do something here, they want something to happen,” he added. “Respectfully, Harry Reid’s a good man, and I have all the respect for Harry. I just wanted different leadership.”
Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.