When it comes to watching out for his home state, Harry Reid is a master at wielding his intimate knowledge of Senate procedures to thwart the majority Republicans. "In the art of legislative jujitsu, Reid is a black belt," says Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker. But now Reid has to go beyond local concerns and tactical skills to set his party's strategy on Capitol Hill -- and its image for the nation. Elected Senate Minority Leader on Nov. 16, Reid and his shrunken Democratic caucus face a GOP emboldened by President George W. Bush's reelection and Republican gains in Congress.
For now that will mostly mean blocking Republican initiatives. With 44 Democrats and one allied independent in the Senate, Reid has one major weapon: the threat to delay and filibuster Bush nominees and legislation. "The Democrats will be in a reactive mode for now," says Norman J. Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute. "What they need is not a great public spokesman, but someone just like Reid who is tough without appearing abrasive and who knows how the Senate operates and can use leverage."
The low-key 64-year-old will take a quieter approach to leading the Democrats than did his smooth and telegenic predecessor, Tom Daschle, who lost his South Dakota seat on Nov. 2. Senate Republican leaders broke an unwritten rule about campaigning directly against an opposition leader and targeted Daschle for defeat, charging that he was an obstructionist liberal in a moderate's clothing. Wary Democrats are now hoping that Reid's Western roots and values will protect him from the same charges. "The Republicans won't be able to claim he's out of touch with the public just because he resists extremist judicial appointments," says Jennifer Backus, a Democratic consultant and former Reid staffer.FIRST TEST
In fact, Reid can draw on moderate and even conservative political credentials -- far more so than Daschle. Reid voted for the ban on partial-birth abortion, co-sponsored a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning, and voted for the 2001 USA Patriot Act, the 1990 Gulf War Resolution, and the 2003 authorization to invade Iraq. He has opposed a federal ban on assault-style weapons. And Reid, the son of a hard-rock miner, has resisted calls by environmentalists for restrictions on mining.
But when he's leading Democrats into battle, Reid promises to stick with strongly held Democratic positions. "I would rather dance than fight, but I know how to fight," said Reid, a former amateur boxer, on accepting the post on Nov. 16. His first test is likely to involve Bush's judicial appointments. Chafing at Senate Democrats' refusal to approve 10 nominees to seats on federal appeals courts, Bush probably will quickly reappoint several of the conservative candidates. Even more controversial will be any nominations to replace some of the aging Supreme Court justices -- with ailing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist likely to be the first to retire.
Democrats fear most the appointment of an anti-abortion conservative who will tip the delicate balance of the court to overturn Roe v. Wade. Reid, though a foe of abortion himself, will resist -- with filibusters if necessary -- any such attempt to reverse the 31-year-old abortion ruling. Meanwhile, any efforts by Republicans to change the rules of the Senate to outlaw such delaying tactics -- under consideration by the GOP leadership -- would be "a huge mistake," Reid warned.THE DUST SETTLES
Bush's top economic priorities could come under fire as well. Current and former staff members insist Reid will strongly resist any efforts by the Bush Administration to overhaul Social Security with private savings accounts. He'll also fight efforts to pass additional tax cuts or any tax simplification that boosts the budget deficit. "We have a huge debt in this country created during the last four years, and even Republicans are beginning to complain about that," said Reid. On the other hand, Reid joins other Democrats who charge that the Administration's No Child Left Behind education reforms are "underfunded."
Democrats admit they can't block everything, so some compromise is likely. Reid, a former trial lawyer, acknowledges that high insurance premiums for doctors are a growing problem. One answer: a Democratic bill to give doctors a tax credit for "exorbitant premiums." Reid also signaled that he wants a higher minimum wage, an oft-used sweetener for Democrats voting for GOP-backed bills.
But as the dust settles from a fractious election, the political rhetoric remains rancorous. Referring to his two new deputies, Reid said on Nov. 16: "We're not three patsies. We believe in certain things, and we will fight for them." Given his knowledge of the legislative battlefield, he should prove a dangerous opponent.
By Paul Magnusson in Washington