How Harry Got His Groove Back: Reid Plays Hardball With The GOP…Finally

Tim Sloan - Pool via CNP/Newscom
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You don’t have to go back in time too far to remember when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ran the Senate in a way that drove progressive Democrats into fits of apoplexy: timidly, and unwilling to use the body’s rules for political advantage. Suddenly, with health care reform behind him, and bleak political prospects for both himself and his party staring him in the face, Reid has decided that it’s finally time to charge hard.

After quarterbacking health care reform through its tricky final moments in the Senate, Reid put the GOP on the spot yesterday, forcing them to filibuster a broadly popular Wall Street reform bill, and promises to do so over and over again. He’s calling out deception, and turning his attention to issues–immigration–that marginalize his opponents, and cleave the Republican party in two.“I think basically he made the mistake of trusting Joe Lieberman and the Republicans, and he got screwed by [them] and now he’s learned,” former DNC Chair Howard Dean told me in an interview this morning.

“I like Harry Reid a lot,” Dean said. “He’s a guy who wants to trust people [but] he knows the Republicans aren’t going to cooperate with him based on his experince with him during the health care bill.”

Dean discounted the extent to which Reid’s own personal political prospects are guiding his new approach.

“Probably not that much,” Dean told me. “I think in general, I think all of the Democrats are going to be helped by taking these issues on.” Reid has suggested that he’ll prioritize the politically charged issue of immigration over the more complex issue of climate change, once the Senate passes financial reform.

But it’s not just issues: It’s also rhetoric, and exploiting situations for procedural advantage.

Just this morning, on the Senate floor, Reid called the GOP’s rhetoric on financial reform Orwellian–that if you want to know what’s right and what’s wrong about the push for financial reform, listen to what the Republicans say, and believe the opposite.

“Senator Reid is doing a great job bringing the Wall Street reform bill to the floor and showing the American people who’s side Senators are on,” says AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale. “Unfortunately so far every single Republican has chosen the side of Wall Street over Main Street.”

Last night, after Republicans voted to sustain their filibuster of Wall Street reform legislation, Reid held an open quorum, forcing Republicans to return to the Senate floor, and then set the stage for revotes–to be held today and tomorrow–forcing the GOP to go on the record repeatedly opposing debate on finanial reform.

Looking back, some progressive leaders wish this Harry Reid had shepherded health care reform in the same way.

“Had Reid taken this approach in 2009, we’d be in a completely different place today,” emails Markos Moulitsas, founder of the blog DailyKos, and a critic of Reid’s leadership. “Not only would Democrats have more accomplishments to brag about, but they would’ve denied the Right the ability to mobilize as effectively as they did.”

Moulitsas isn’t quick to give Reid credit, but he does see early signs that Reid learned a thing or two since he took over as leader.

Not everything has gone perfectly since health care reform. Yesterday, one of his own rank and file members–Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE)–voted with the Republicans to block debate on financial reform legislation. And after calling out his Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell in a press conference last week, Reid took to the Senate floor yesterday to issue an apology. “Last week, I criticized the Republican leader for the way he was handling Wall Street Reform. I even criticized him for a series of meetings he held in New York and the result of the meetings. I want the record to be very clear, however, I was in no way impugning the integrity of my friend from Kentucky,” Reid said. “[N]o one should take my disagreement with my friend to question his honesty.”

But those are fairly minor hiccups in what has been a fairly consistent, weeks-long onslaught.

Says Moulitsas: “If he follows through and forces Republicans to make tough choices on good legislation, then [that] will obviously be a positive.”

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