Harry Reid: the Senate has lost its way – Vox.com

LAS VEGAS — Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid thinks Republicans have been seduced by President Donald Trump and forgotten the whole point of the US Senate.

Sitting at his desk in his old Senate chair with his name engraved on the back, Reid complained that the Republican-led upper chamber has become too subservient to the president under current Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“I can’t imagine how the Republicans are being so compliant on everything [Trump] wants,” Reid told me during a recent interview in his Las Vegas office. “What’s the Senate all about?”

It’s not because Trump is an aberration, he cautions: “Trump did not create the Republican Congress; the Republican Congress created Trump.”


Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sits at his desk during an interview in his Las Vegas office.

Krystal Ramirez for Vox

If Reid thinks the Senate is a shell of its former self, Republicans would likely tell the former Senate majority leader he helped hasten its demise. Reid was an effective but controversial leader, who will be remembered for “going nuclear” in 2013, blowing up the Senate filibuster that was long considered sacred.

Reid attributes that to a matter of practicality, saying he had “no choice” in the face of McConnell obstructing former President Barack Obama’s court and Cabinet picks.

“It was the right thing to do,” he told me bluntly.

Reid blames congressional Republicans for the fall of the Senate — pointing to their conduct on Obama’s Supreme Court pick, Merrick Garland, who never got a vote. More recently, he watched as Senate Republicans allowed Trump to issue an emergency declaration in an attempt to fund his border wall. With that precedent now set, Reid warned Democrats could do something similar in the future on an issue like gun control.

The former leader, 79, is now three years retired and returning to work after undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer (which he recently said is in remission). Reid is largely confined to a wheelchair these days but seems on top of his game. With a steady stream of Democrats running for president seeking out his advice on policy, he’s certainly still an influential player in Nevada and national politics.

Reid has not endorsed a Democrat in the 2020 race. But he’s warning the entire party that winning the election is no given and Trump could very well succeed again. “We have to first approach this recognizing that he could be reelected,” Reid said. “We cannot let this man be elected again. I think he has to be taken on. You need to fight him, but not on his terms, on your terms.”

And he was clear: Democrats should try to beat Trump in 2020, not waste their time attempting to impeach the president. Even with the current “tribalism” on Capitol Hill, Reid told me it’s crucial for Congress to do their work rather than become mired in impeachment.

“We’ll get nothing done if there’s impeachment proceedings,” he said. “We’d spend all of our time on that; nothing else.”

In a lengthy interview, Reid reflected on the state of Congress and Democratic politics — complete with his signature burns.

Ella Nilsen

I wanted to ask you about the filibuster. Do you stand by your decision to get rid of the filibuster for most presidential nominations in 2013?

Harry Reid

Let’s go back and look where we were. Obama was president of the United States. We had the DC Circuit that was four, five members short. DC Circuit is the second most important court in the country, right below the Supreme Court. The Republicans don’t like organized labor, they couldn’t take them on directly, so what they did is defang the National Labor Relations Board. They couldn’t even get a quorum because they wouldn’t approve any new people coming on the board.

We had Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officers that Obama couldn’t get approved. So we had no choice; I had no choice. And that’s why the Democrats agreed to change the rules. Now, first of all, understand the rules have been changed in the Senate lots and lots of times. I did it; it was the right thing to do. We approved over 100 judges for Obama, we filled all his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officers with rare exception, we took care of the National Labor Relations Board, we did a lot of good things. And it would not have happened otherwise. We had to do that or the White House, the president, would become a meaningless person.

Ella Nilsen

Some 2020 candidates including Elizabeth Warren have called for the elimination of the filibuster entirely. Do you agree?

Harry Reid

No, I don’t. I think it should be done gradually. I didn’t author, but I approved, an article written by one of my longtime staff members, Bill Dauster, in the NYU Law Journal. It was a good, good article, because what it said was unless things changed, the House of Representatives was just going to move across the Capitol and you would have two Houses of Representatives. Now, would that be the end of the world? No, because it would still be bicameral. But you would have a simple majority determine what happens in the Senate. As I said, it’s not the end of the world for the Senate, but it would be better if we didn’t do it.

In the past, the filibuster has been used very sparingly. However, the Republican Congress in the last many years have filibustered everything so that 60 votes became the vote. As we wrote in that article, unless it changed, the House of Representatives will move across the hall and we’ll just have two Houses of Representatives.

Ella Nilsen

With that question about obstruction, when you look at what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has done, what is the mark you think he has left on the Senate?

Harry Reid

Well, I think the worst thing that was done by the Republicans has been what they’ve done with the Supreme Court. To think — now, first of all, the chairman of the Republican Judiciary Committee when they were in the majority, [Orrin] Hatch from Utah, said the most qualified person to be a Supreme Court Justice is Merrick Garland. He said that. I’m not making this up; that’s what he said. And so when Merrick Garland came up … we were all very happy, but Orrin Hatch walked away from it and this man never even got a vote. So that’s what the Republicans have caused to happen in the Senate. If they have a black mark against them, it is certainly what they’ve done with the Supreme Court.

Ella Nilsen

When you got rid of the filibuster in 2013, were you concerned that it would be taken a step further with the Supreme Court? And now, given what McConnell has done with the Supreme Court?

Harry Reid

Well, that’s possible. As I said, the rules in the Senate have been changed many, many times over the years. But what goes around comes around. Republicans, for example, voting to give — hard to mention his name as president — President Trump the authority to make an emergency declaration for this wall. If they do that, they’ve set a precedent to say, “Okay, seems to me if he can do that for a wall, then we can do something about guns.” 57,000 Americans are killed every year. So I repeat, what goes around comes around. They better be careful.

Ella Nilsen

If we did get to a point where the filibuster was eliminated, do you think it would be possible to govern in such a closely divided Senate?

Harry Reid

Oh, sure, of course. It would be easier probably to do that than what the Republicans are doing now, causing a filibuster on everything. You need 60 votes on everything — that isn’t the way it should be. The Congress would still work, [but] it wouldn’t work nearly as well as it has in the past because of the rules in the Senate. But if we changed them, the Senate would still have six-year terms; they would have to, as Jefferson said, pour the coffee in the saucer and let it cool off. It wouldn’t end the world of Congress.


Reid responds to questions during a Vox interview.

Krystal Ramirez for Vox

Ella Nilsen

What do you think about McConnell tying himself so closely to Trump?

Harry Reid

Well, I know Mitch McConnell; I consider him a friend. I can’t imagine how the Republicans are being so compliant on everything he [Trump] wants. What’s the Senate all about?

As I always said, I didn’t work for the president, I worked with him. We are a separate branch of government — we’re the legislative branch of government. Let the White House, which is the executive branch of government, do what they want to do. But we should be a buttress to keep the White House from going crazy, as this one has done.

Ella Nilsen

So you don’t think that’s happening now — do you feel the Senate or McConnell is serving the president?

Harry Reid

I think the Senate has lost their way.

Ella Nilsen

Are McConnell and Trump matching your and Obama’s legacy on judicial nominations at this point?

Harry Reid

[long pause] Matching … if you just go by numbers, of course they’re fairly equal at this stage. But I think if you look at quality, they’re not close.

Ella Nilsen

Are you concerned, though, about the number of Trump/McConnell judges that are now going to serve lifetime appointments, given some of their track records?

Harry Reid

Yeah, but of course, they’re concerned about what we did too. But I hope that the judges who are put in the courts around the country will understand they’re a separate branch of government. Once they get to be a judge, they no longer have to please Donald Trump. They are lifetime appointments. And we find around the country that a lot of these judges who I think a lot of people thought would just roll over and play dead for this administration aren’t doing it.

Ella Nilsen

How do you think Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have handled President Trump so far, with the government shutdown and now all this talk about impeachment?

Harry Reid

Well, I served as leader when Pelosi was the speaker the first go-round, and I have such admiration for her, and the public feels about the same way I do. She has been one of the few people that took on Trump, and he had no answer to her questions and her pressure. Sen. Schumer and I have a longstanding relationship. Everyone knows that I brought him into Senate leadership. He did very well. As a leader, I hope I helped prepare him for that, but I’m not in any way [going] to second-guess him. I think the world of Chuck Schumer; we will always be friends. So I’m the wrong guy to ask, because I’m prejudiced.

Ella Nilsen

Well, looking at the challenges Trump has posed. The shutdown, when I was covering that, it felt like DC was gripped by this chaos.

Harry Reid

Well, I, during my political career, have heard people talk about the Constitution and the framework it has to protect our country. I never really felt that until Trump was elected president; I really feel that now. I think we’re going to overcome Trump because of our Constitution. We’re going to get through the next less-than-two years of him and then we’re going to have a new day. As Pete Seeger sings, “I can see a new day, soon to be, when the storm clouds will soon pass.” But I do believe that. I think that Trump will be gone because of our great Constitution. Our country will move on and get past that.

Ella Nilsen

There’s been a lot of discussion about impeachment since the Mueller report came out. Do you think Democrats should pursue that?

Harry Reid

There’s some who say the Mueller report is only an invitation for impeachment. Now, that would be a better view if it was a year ago. But it’s now; it’s not long until the 2020 election. I have no problem with there being hearings held based on the Mueller information. But I think to have impeachment now would eat up precious time we have before the general election, and I think even though there’s a lot of tribalism going on in Congress — some say, “Well, we’re not going to get anything done anyway.” I don’t believe that. We have to get a few things done, we can do that, and we’ll get nothing done if there’s impeachment proceedings. We’d spend all of our time on that, nothing else.

Ella Nilsen

Trump is talking with House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer about an infrastructure plan. Do you have any hope anything bipartisan is going to happen?

Harry Reid

We’re not going to get anything done unless it’s done on a bipartisan basis. That’s the way it is, no matter who’s president. And Trump, even though he hasn’t been good at most things … he’s a great starter but a lousy finisher. He starts a lot of stuff and rarely finishes anything. So I would think there’s hope for a good deal on the need for infrastructure. A trillion dollars — it’s more than that, but let’s start at $1 trillion. We have highways, roads, bridges, dams, waterways, sewer systems, just to name a few things that are deeply in trouble. We have water lines leaking all over America, and why aren’t they being fixed? Because people don’t have money to do it. Governments don’t have money to do it.

Now, we all agree there should be something done on infrastructure, so how are we going to pay for it? I don’t even think you can find a Republican writer, a journalist, that says anything good about the Trump tax cut. It just didn’t help; it didn’t help anyone. And I would hope we could use some of that money for infrastructure. We need to have money to pay for the infrastructure. It’s good to go to a meeting in the White House and say how much we need to improve our infrastructure system, it’s another thing to say we have problems with our infrastructure but we need to pay for it, and then outline how it’s going to be paid for.

Ella Nilsen

If Democrats can’t show a bipartisan achievement like infrastructure or another piece of legislation, could that hurt the party in 2020?

Harry Reid

I don’t think there’s any way to blame Democrats for the problems we have in Congress. Trump did not create the Republican Congress; the Republican Congress created Trump. It would be really a stretch to blame Democrats for things not getting done in this Congress.

Ella Nilsen

What do you think about the current push for Medicare-for-all in the House? They recently held hearings.

Harry Reid

Well, one of the things I’m very pleased that I worked hard on and we accomplished was Obamacare. That was very, very hard to get the votes to pass that. Pelosi and I were running the Congress at that time and we were able to get it done. A tremendous accomplishment for this country, and we know what it’s done: It’s improved the health care delivery system in America today. The Republicans have done what they could to chop it up and try to get rid of it; they haven’t been able to do that. They’re afraid to get rid of it.

But I think what we need to do is go back and restore Obamacare and keep progressing in that way. It’s easy to talk about Medicare-for-all and just eliminating everything and have it change tomorrow, but it’s much harder to do; it’s not that easy. And I think we would be better off going back and taking care of Obamacare, which did so many good things for so many different people. It allowed people who had prior disabilities who couldn’t get insurance [to get it]. Insurance companies ran roughshod over everybody. They couldn’t do that with Obamacare. But now they’ve weakened that a lot. So now what I say is let’s go back and restore Obamacare to make it better.

Ella Nilsen

How do Democrats defeat Trump in 2020?

Harry Reid

We have to first approach this recognizing that he could be reelected. We cannot let this man be elected again. I think he has to be taken on. I keep reminding the American people what’s in the Mueller report, what they see every day about his fabrications, about things people can’t believe he fabricates. This man who is president of the United States brags about what he can do to women, what he has done to women. I think he has to be taken on. You can’t take it lightly, but you can’t walk away from him, be afraid to fight him. You need to fight him, but not on his terms, on your terms.

Ella Nilsen

What do those terms look like?

Harry Reid

Take him head on. Let’s talk about an issue. Talk about health care delivery. Talk about what he’s done to foreign relations, what he’s done to our trade policy, what he’s done with renewable energy, which is nothing. What he’s done to destroy the environment, which is a lot. He ignores climate change — the most significant problem facing mankind today, or maybe ever. He doesn’t think it exists.

Ella Nilsen

Do you think Democrats are better off saying, “Look at these issues, here’s what he’s done on these issues,” rather than focusing on the Mueller report and Russia — this thing that’s consuming Washington?

Harry Reid

I think it’s a mix of both. I think that you can’t put your playbook and just have one play; you need to be able to adjust as time goes on.

Ella Nilsen

Looking at some of the candidates that are running, you see this left-wing populism coming from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Do you think that is an effective counter to the right-wing populism that Trump embodies?

Harry Reid

It’s a little more loud now than in the past. But ever since I’ve been involved in national politics, the Republicans are monitored and pushed by the far right. That’s the way it’s always been. Democrats have always been pushed by the left. That’s why we had the big flare-up in Chicago when [Hubert] Humphrey was running for president [in 1968]. So it’s always been there. It’s just louder than it’s been in the past.

Ella Nilsen

Even than in the ’60s?

Harry Reid

Oh, yeah, I think so.

Ella Nilsen

Why do you think it’s gotten so much louder?

Harry Reid

Because of Trump. I think he’s so outrageous in so many things he does that people are trying to find a way to respond to that. And as I said, I think that for example, on health care delivery, we’re not going to change the world in a day, but we can change it a few hours at a time and restore Obamacare to what it was and make it even better. On climate change, we’re not going to change it overnight, but we have these things we have to do. Renewable energy is something… we need to get rid of coal — get rid of it! Fossil fuels, do everything we can to get rid of it. America can supply all the energy it needs with wind and sun and geothermal and biomass, all kinds of things. We do not need fossil fuel.

I fought coal in Nevada; we don’t have one plant left in Nevada. It’s on its way out. People don’t want coal. We have Trump — he held out false hope for the coal industry. It’s gone, it’s just a question of how long it’s going to hang around, and we need to speed up its demise.

Ella Nilsen

What 2020 candidates are you keeping your eye on? There are so many of them now.

Harry Reid

Well, I had the good fortune of being able to visit with almost all of them. I have a meeting over the weekend with Beto [O’Rourke]. So we’re fortunate to have the good people running that we do. I of course served with Joe Biden in the Senate for 34 years; he’s a friend of mine. We’ve got our caucuses coming here next February, so I’m going to be very, very cautious and not endorse anyone. But everyone knows of my affection for Joe Biden.

Ella Nilsen

It seemed like Biden’s pitch when he announced was, first of all, taking Trump on very directly. And then also it seemed to me kind of a return to the Obama years, and I’m curious if you think that’s an effective pitch to the American people.

Harry Reid

Joe Biden’s rollout was very, very good, because it made a contrast to what we’re doing now under the Trump administration and what he has done. But he did it very, very subtly and very well, because remember he was eight years vice president for Obama. So I think everyone quickly realized that he’s not going to have Obama before the primary out waving banners for him, but everyone knows of their close relationship.

Ella Nilsen

What about Elizabeth Warren? There were reports you encouraged her to run for president for 2020. Why was that, and have you encouraged anyone else?

Harry Reid

Those reports are absolutely true. Her chief of staff and campaign manager was my former press secretary, so I have a longstanding relationship with Sen. Warren. I helped her get started and put her on that commission; she did a great job. To make a long story short, we wanted her after we passed Dodd-Frank to be in charge of consumer affairs in the White House and the Republicans stopped her from doing that, so she ran for the Senate. I wish they had given her that job. She’s done well. I think the world of her; she knows I can’t endorse her, I can’t endorse Joe or anybody else. But that doesn’t mean I can’t tell everybody how good they are.

Ella Nilsen

What do you think she brings to the campaign?

Harry Reid

First of all, she brings a Harvard brain with her. Being a law professor at Harvard, she’s a very, very bright woman. She is someone who I think is respected for what she’s done, not what she plans to do but what she’s done. … She started with nothing, became a single mother, got out of school because she was smart, and has done well.


Reid sits in his old chair from the US Senate.

Krystal Ramirez for Vox

Ella Nilsen

On the Nevada caucuses, what have Democrats in Nevada done in order to turn out the Latino/Hispanic vote that other states have struggled to do?

Harry Reid

There was an article that came out today that was so good. It talked about the reason that [Jacky] Rosen beat [then-Sen. Dean] Heller was the strong, strong Hispanic vote. I had been a fan of Hispanics and their organizations for a long, long time and people actually used to make fun of me. “Why are you going to do that? A lot of them are illegal; they never register to vote. If they are registered to vote, they don’t vote and turnout’s awful.”

When I ran last time, they thought they had me. The first ad they ran [was] “Harry Reid, the best friend illegal immigrants ever had,” and it had all these dark people look like they were coming across the water or something. And all it did was make Hispanics mad. So they joined together and reelected me. People said I couldn’t be reelected, leaders never do well in the state and it hurts to be a national leader. I did just fine and from that day forward — people around the country understood that Hispanics make a difference, and they do.

Ella Nilsen

Do you see that happening in 2020 with Trump’s rhetoric on immigrants?

Harry Reid

Oh, sure, yes, I think so. As I said two years ago here in Nevada, they make all the difference. [They] elected Congresswoman Jacky Rosen, who had only served one term in the House and became a senator.

Ella Nilsen

I feel like states like Texas have struggled to do this in the same way. Do you think there are other state parties who haven’t quite figured out how to do it?

Harry Reid

Texas has always been a difficult state. I’ve tried many times to elect a senator there. The problem we’ve had in Texas is there’s 22 separate media markets. It’s so expensive. But Beto did pretty well. I wish he had run against [John Cornyn], but he decided not to do that. But I just think that Texas is demographically a Democratic state; it’s only a question of time until they become one.

Ella Nilsen

How important are the Nevada caucuses in 2020?

Harry Reid

Well, I worked hard to get them established. It’s also been good for the country. The four early states — South Carolina, Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire’s the only direct vote; the rest are caucus states. Nevada is the only state that is representative of our country: 30 percent Hispanic, 9 percent African American. Our balance is so interesting. We have a heavy Filipino population here. So the caucuses are just remarkably good for the country. If you want to do well in the West, you have to come to Nevada because we educate people in public lands, we advise them on renewable energy, we educate on nuclear waste, how bad it is.

Ella Nilsen

When you look at the power that Iowa and New Hampshire have, do you see Western states like Nevada and California taking a chunk of that power and getting to decide the president?

Harry Reid

Oh, yeah, for sure. And look what’s happened in the last few years. Two Democratic senators in California, two in Washington, two in Oregon. The West Coast is pretty Democratic, and we even got a Democratic congressman out of Utah, can you believe that?

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