Don’t worry, this isn’t a controversy-type post, just a quick look at the apparent ineffectuality of U.S. Senate leader Harry Reid. What has become clear is that nobody trusts Reid to deliver the votes necessary to pass anything, partly because he’s been fairly passive about letting the Republicans filibuster everything (creating what amounts to a supermajority requirement to pass legislation) and partly because he can’t even guarantee that the members of his own caucus won’t join a filibuster. This became clear today when Joe Lieberman, former Democrat who caucuses with his former party, expressed an intent to filibuster a health-care bill with a public option.
Reid, who appalled the Washington Post’s snarky liberal-basher Dana Milbank by including the option in his health-care bill, can pass anything if he just keeps all 60 of his caucus members from filibustering (up to nine of them can vote against the bill; they just have to vote to allow a vote). The news that the Obama administration was pushing against the public option, in favour of a plan favoured by semi-Republican Olympia Snowe, was taken as a sign that they didn’t have confidence in Reid’s ability to deliver 60 votes against a filibuster. And it seems, for now, that they were right. That might change, or Reid might simply drop the public option from the bill; this way he at least gets credit for trying to put the public option in there, which can help him get liberal support for his tough upcoming re-election campaign. But for now, Reid has gained such a reputation for weakness that everything he says or does sort of re-inforces the perception that he’s weak; he’s even taken to referring to himself in the third person, Bob Dole style.
The question, then, is whether Reid is as weak as he seems, or whether this is a misconception that comes from his famously meek manner and his difficult job. He obviously has a tough job because the Democrats are a more heterogeneous party than the Republicans. But the Republicans are able to keep their members in line more than the Democrats can theirs. Snowe and Susan Collins, the only “liberal” Republicans left, often vote with their party when they’re under serious pressure to do so. The Democrats under Reid are infamous for not threatening committee chairmanships or other perks (Lieberman was allowed to keep his chairmanship after campaigning for the other party’s candidate), so they have no real reason to do anything they’re told.
Reid also kind of seems like a guy who became majority leader almost by accident. He was appointed to lead the Democrats after their previous leader, Tom Daschle, lost re-election. The Democrats were in a pretty deep hole at the time (2004) and seemed likely to be in the minority for some time. Reid seemed like the kind of guy who would be a good minority leader: from a state that went for Bush in 2004 (Nevada) with a reputation for being somewhat conservative on social issues like abortion, and well-liked. He could block certain Republican initiatives and cut deals with the majority on other things. Once the Democrats unexpectedly recaptured the Senate and he became majority leader, he had to take a role in actively pushing things through, and he doesn’t seem particularly good at it. The Republicans may have had a somewhat similar problem when they unexpectedly recaptured the Senate in 1980 on Reagan’s coattails: their leader was Howard Baker, a moderate, bipartisan-type Republican who was arguably more suited to the role of minority leader.
Worse, because Reid’s not from a reliably blue state, he has to worry that certain things will hurt his re-election chances; he’s always looking over his shoulder at the voters. Daschle, from South Dakota, had a similar problem when he was Majority Leader in 2001-2. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, is from Kentucky, a strong Republican state; he had a stronger-than-usual challenge in 2008, but won by a comfortable 100,000 vote margin. He can do his job without worrying that the voters will punish him for being too beholden to his party.