By Alexander Bolton - 05/21/14 06:00 AM EDT
Harry Reid has become the most powerful Senate majority leader in history.
Congressional experts say the Nevada Democrat has used more strong-arm tactics than his predecessors, has a firm grip on his Democratic colleagues and has played a major role in changing the once-collegial Senate.
Republicans, eyeing a return to the majority in the upper chamber, are alleging an abuse of power by Reid as well as President Obama. They call the majority leader “a dictator” and have labeled the Obama era an “imperial presidency.”
Democrats counter that “obstructionist” Republicans should look in the mirror, claiming they have tried to work with the GOP on a range of issues.
American journalist Robert Caro famously dubbed Lyndon Baines Johnson the “master of the Senate,” but experts say Reid now wields more power than Johnson ever did.
Reid’s tight leadership reins have protected vulnerable Democrats from having to take tough votes and helped them amass a 55-seat majority. He routinely puts legislation on the floor as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, denying the minority and even members of his own caucus the chance to amend it.
Republicans point out they were allowed to vote on only nine of their proposed amendments since July of last year.
Parliamentary experts say Reid has managed the floor debate much more strictly than his predecessors.
“Sen. Reid has actively assumed the role far in excess of that assumed by previous majority leaders. That is to be a traffic cop over the amendment process either to produce amendments by allowing those he deems acceptable for consideration by the Senate or to bar amendments altogether,” said Martin Gold, an expert on congressional procedure who served former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
“He has engaged in that practice more than twice as frequently as all previous majority leaders combined,” Gold said.
Experts say the Senate rules do not formally empower Reid to block colleagues from offering amendments to bills and steering the course of the political debate.
Instead, Reid has made extensive use of the precedent set by Vice President John Nance Garner, a Democrat, who as president of the Senate, granted the majority leader the right of first recognition on the floor. The five-term senator has used that right of recognition to repeatedly fill the available slots for amendments to various bills, a process known as filling the tree, leaving colleagues no opportunities to offer their own ideas.
Senate historian Donald Ritchie agrees that Reid has controlled the floor debate more than any previous leader.
“Sen. Reid is certainly doing it more than his predecessors,” he said.
Republicans across the political spectrum, such as Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Rand Paul (Ky.), have called Reid a “dictator,” which in the past would have been as a breach of decorum in the traditionally clubby Senate.
Reid’s critics say the Senate has become much more like the House, a historically partisan chamber.
Senate Republican candidates are trying to portray Reid as a bogeyman to mobilize conservative voters for the 2014 election.
Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is running against Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), has pledged to “make Harry Reid a footnote in history.”
Scoffing at GOP complaints, Reid says Republicans have forced his hand.
“If that makes me powerful, that’s too bad because the only reason that we’re doing this is because for five and a half years, everything this president has tried to do, they’ve stepped in the way,” he said of Republicans. “They’ve done it with … unrealistic demands.”
Reid, a former amateur boxer, said Republicans are doing so again this week by insisting on an amendment to a bipartisan tax package that would repeal the medical device tax. Even though some Democrats support repealing the measure, Reid has put his foot down on ObamaCare.
“The Republicans can’t get out of their head ObamaCare. That’s an ObamaCare amendment. We’re not going to do that,” he said.
Democrats, by and large, support Reid’s iron-fisted rule. One Democratic senator told The Hill last week that it’s necessary because Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is focused on inflicting political damage against incumbents with amendments, instead of trying to improve legislation.
“Mitch McConnell is all about seizing power for himself,” said the lawmaker who requested anonymity to discuss the GOP leader frankly.
Senate experts also point to Reid’s decision to change Senate precedent to strip Republicans of the power to filibuster executive and judicial branch nominees.
“Harry Reid’s role as a majority leader has become much more muscular. He is much more willing to challenge the existing rules. He is much more inclined to break things, which of course distinguishes him from his predecessors,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, who served as a scholar in residence in Reid’s office.
Baker drew a contrast between Reid and his Democratic predecessors, former Senate Majority Leaders George Mitchell (D-Maine) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
“Under Mitchell, conditions were much more benign,” he said.
Baker emphasized that Republicans were much more willing to cooperate with Democrats under Mitchell’s reign.
He said that Reid having “gone farther than anyone else” is “less a reflection on his grasp on power than on the increasingly bitter partisanship.”
This year, the major items of the Democratic agenda — an unemployment benefits package, an increase in the minimum wage, the Paycheck Fairness Act and student loan legislation expected in June have not undergone committee markups. Reid has brought them all straight to the floor, violating the “regular order” process.
Reid flexed his muscle earlier this year when he overruled Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden’s (D-Ore.) desire to rework a deal he struck with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to freeze scheduled cuts in doctors’ Medicare payments.
At the start of Obama’s first term, Reid steered the floundering Affordable Care Act, which had moved at a glacial pace in the Finance Committee, and negotiated the final version of the Senate bill in his office. It later passed on a straight party-line vote, giving Obama, for better or worse, the signature achievement of his presidency.
Reid also took over the negotiations to put together the $787 billion economic stimulus package of 2009. He corralled Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) to give Obama his first major legislative accomplishment.
The 74-year-old senator disputed the claim that power has shifted from committee chairmen to his office over the past eight years. He emphasized that he abolished the special task forces established under Daschle, which some chairmen saw as trampling on their authority.
“That is not factual,” he said. “One of the reasons I got this job, the night I found out that Daschle lost, I called every chair and I said, ‘I haven’t favored these task forces that have been set up. I’m not going to do that anymore; I’m going to return powers to the chairs,’ and we’ve done that.”