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
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.”

What We're Following See More »
MOST WATCHED EVER?
Little Ratings Drop-Off from Beginning to End of Debate
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

The conventional wisdom is already emerging that Donald Trump opened last night's debate well, but that he faded badly down the stretch. And most viewers apparently witnessed it. "The early Nielsen data confirms that viewership stayed high the entire time. Contrary to some speculation, there was not a big drop-off after the first hour of the 98-minute debate." Final data is still being tallied, but "Monday's face-off may well have been the most-watched debate in American history. CNN and other cable news channels saw big increases over past election years. So did some of the broadcast networks."

Source:
FUNDING RUNS OUT ON FRIDAY
Federal Agencies Prepare for Govt Shutdown
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

As Congress continues to bicker on riders to a continuing resolution, federal agencies have started working with the Office of Management and Budget to prepare for a government shutdown, which will occur if no continuing resolution is passed by 11:59 p.m. on Friday night. The OMB held a call with agencies on Sept. 23, one that is required one week before a possible shutdown. The government last shut down for 16 days in 2013, and multiple shutdowns have been narrowly avoided since then. It is expected that Congress will reach a deal before the clock strikes midnight, but until it does, preparations will continue.

Source:
OBAMA’S ENVIRONMENTAL LEGACY IN THE BALANCE
Obama’s Clean Power Plan Faces Courts
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

President Obama's Clean Power Plan, a large pillar of his efforts to leave a lasting environmental legacy, "goes before the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today." The plan "imposes the first national limits on carbon pollution from power plants." A number of consolidated cases finds 27 states challenging this plan, which was blocked by the Supreme Court in February pending decisions from lower courts. The states will argue that the government doesn't have the right to impose restrictions requiring them to shutter plans and restructure full industries.

Source:
UNCLEAR IF THIS WILL AFFECT POLLS
Instant Reaction: Clinton Won Debate
3 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

There seems to be a clear consensus forming about Monday's debate: Hillary Clinton was the winner. One focus group of undecided Pennsylvania voters, conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz, found 16 favored Clinton while five picked Donald Trump. In a Florida focus group organized by CNN, 18 of 20 undecided voters saw Clinton as the winner.

DIDN’T BECAUSE CHELSEA WAS IN THE ROOM
Trump Wanted to Bring Up Bill Clinton
3 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

As both candidates walked off the stage, Donald Trump lauded himself for being restrained and for not bringing up Bill Clinton. "I didn’t want to say—her husband was in the room along with her daughter, who I think is a very nice young lady—and I didn’t want to say what I was going to say about what’s been going on in their life," Trump said. Trump claims he stopped himself from hitting Bill Clinton because daughter Chelsea was in the room.

Source:
×