How Harry Reid Keeps Democrats in Lockstep

Senate Democrats have displayed remarkable discipline because Harry Reid so rarely asks it of them.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) speaks to members of the media after the Senate Democratic weekly policy luncheon November 19, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Michael Catalin and Shane Goldmacher
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Michael Catalin Shane Goldmacher
Nov. 21, 2013, 9:03 a.m.

Harry Re­id doesn’t rule his Sen­ate Demo­crats with an iron fist. For the most part, the ma­jor­ity lead­er is fine with his col­leagues speak­ing their minds and be­ing flex­ible in their votes. He asks for party dis­cip­line only when it mat­ters. And with the rol­lout of Pres­id­ent Obama’s sig­na­ture health law fa­cing severe tur­bu­lence, it mat­ters now.

Signs of un­rest abound. Most prom­in­ently, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is back­ing a le­gis­lat­ive fix to the health pro­gram’s can­celed in­sur­ance policies, des­pite Obama’s in­sist­ence that he’s hand­ling it ad­min­is­trat­ively. Still, there has been no open re­bel­lion. Re­id’s troops are com­plain­ing about the pres­id­ent; they’re not set­ting out to em­bar­rass their lead­er.

Even Re­pub­lic­ans are im­pressed by how Re­id’s troops are fall­ing in line. “Frankly, I’m amazed that they stick to­geth­er as well as they do, be­cause it’s not in their best in­terests to fol­low some of the things that the lead­er­ship de­mands of them,” said Sen. Or­rin Hatch, R-Utah.

Dur­ing the re­cent gov­ern­ment shut­down, Sen­ate Demo­crats un­an­im­ously swat­ted away bill after bill au­thored by House Re­pub­lic­ans, even as the meas­ures were de­signed to em­bar­rass the Demo­crats and feed in­to 2014 at­tack ads. Re­id’s lead­er­ship looked more re­mark­able when com­pared with the un­rest on the oth­er side of the Cap­it­ol, where House Speak­er John Boehner has muddled through a series of in­tern­al de­fec­tions and in­sur­rec­tions in the last year.

There’s noth­ing par­tic­u­larly fanci­ful about Re­id’s tac­tics. The Nevadan grinds out long hours listen­ing to his party’s sen­at­ors, of­ten tak­ing their calls or drop-ins in the midst of oth­er meet­ings. He shields them from as many dif­fi­cult votes as pos­sible.

Most im­port­ant, he gives al­most total lat­it­ude to sen­at­ors who are next up on the bal­lot.

“The first people you give passes to are the most vul­ner­able,” said a seni­or Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship aide. It’s no co­in­cid­ence that the only four de­fec­tions when Sen­ate Demo­crats passed a budget earli­er this year were mem­bers fa­cing reelec­tion in 2014 in states that Mitt Rom­ney car­ried. Those who had just won in such states — Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire Mc­Caskill of Mis­souri, and Jon Test­er of Montana — car­ried the vot­ing load. “When you’re up, you’re up. When you’re not up, you’re to help those who are up,” the lead­er­ship aide said.

To hear Sen. Bri­an Schatz of Hawaii tell it, Re­id spends a lot of his time as a so­cial work­er coun­sel­ing needy sen­at­ors, each with his or her own spe­cif­ic prob­lem — a tough race back home, a con­tested primary (as in Schatz’s case), or a par­tic­u­lar home-state in­dustry that needs a boost.

“It’s mem­ber man­age­ment and mak­ing sure that every­body’s home-state pri­or­it­ies and polit­ic­al pre­dis­pos­i­tions are ac­coun­ted for, and that’s no small task,” Schatz said. “He’s been ex­traordin­ary in his abil­ity to keep us to­geth­er.”

Re­id’s No. 1 un­writ­ten rule: no sur­prises. Sen. Max Baucus of Montana vi­ol­ated that edict back in March when he voted against his party’s budget — the meas­ure passed 50-49 — des­pite chair­ing the Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee. Re­id’s team didn’t know Baucus’s no vote was com­ing, aides have said; they were even more taken aback when Baucus an­nounced his re­tire­ment a month later: He had voted against the budget and wouldn’t even be fa­cing the elect­or­ate again.

Chris Kofinis, a former chief of staff to Joe Manchin of West Vir­gin­ia, per­haps the Sen­ate’s most mod­er­ate Demo­crat, said Re­id’s op­er­a­tion nev­er once pun­ished Manchin for veer­ing from the party line. “There was al­ways un­der­stand­ing about what you needed to do,” Kofinis said.

Kofinis said Re­id and his top ad­viser, Chief of Staff Dav­id Krone, were al­ways avail­able to talk ahead of key votes. “They build sup­port the old-fash­ioned way,” he said. “They earn it.”

Re­pub­lic­ans say Re­id has won his troops’ loy­alty by con­tort­ing the Sen­ate’s rules to stifle GOP amend­ments at will. Just this week, as the Sen­ate de­bated the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill, Re­pub­lic­ans sought to have more of their amend­ments con­sidered. Re­id said no. “Every­one has to un­der­stand that this is not go­ing to be an open amend­ment pro­cess,” Re­id said. “It is not go­ing to hap­pen.”

However Re­id built his party’s unity, the com­bin­a­tion of the dis­astrous rol­lout of the health re­form web­site — already 39 Demo­crats in the House have voted for a Re­pub­lic­an meas­ure aimed at nick­ing the law — and the loom­ing fight over re­writ­ing the Sen­ate’s rules to curb fu­ture fili­busters could prove Re­id’s biggest test yet.

Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors are lin­ing up with le­gis­lat­ive fixes for Obama­care. Manchin is sup­port­ing a GOP bill to delay the in­di­vidu­al man­date for a year. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hamp­shire has pushed le­gis­la­tion to delay the en­roll­ment dead­line by two months or more. And Alaska’s Mark Be­gich wants to cre­ate a new, cheap­er “cop­per” health care op­tion. Then there’s Landrieu’s bill to let people keep their can­celed health plans.

While red-state Demo­crats who talk about those bills — and score polit­ic­al points by pro­pos­ing them — have Re­id’s bless­ing, ac­tu­ally vot­ing on them does not. None of the meas­ures are cur­rently sched­uled for floor time. Re­id is keep­ing them at bay un­til at least Decem­ber.

How suc­cess­ful Re­id can be bey­ond that could de­pend on wheth­er the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion cleans up the health care mess. If the web­site woes, in­sur­ance can­cel­la­tions, and tales of doc­tors axed from in­sur­ance plans drag in­to the elec­tion year, Re­id may be forced to ac­com­mod­ate his vul­ner­able in­cum­bents. Whatever hap­pens, law­makers say Re­id has the in­stincts to main­tain his gov­ern­ing ma­jor­ity.

“That’s why he gets the big bucks,” Be­gich said. “That’s his role.”

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