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Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, flanked by Sen. Tom Harkin, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, right, speaks in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in 2011.
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Harry Reid’s most valuable advice to future Democratic leaders

“I think the biggest lesson is never trust Republicans,” says one of Reid’s former staffers.

Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Editor’s note, December 29, 2021: This story, which features an interview with former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, was first published on June 1, 2021. Reid died on December 28 at the age of 82.

By the time he decided to “go nuclear” on filibusters for most presidential appointees, Harry Reid had had it with Republicans.

The obstruction that finally pushed the Democratic leader to change the Senate’s rules in 2013 was the GOP’s refusal to consider three of President Barack Obama’s DC Circuit Court picks. But his frustration with Republican blockades had been building for months.

There was the GOP effort to sink Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator-turned-defense secretary nominee; the attempts to stymie Richard Cordray, the nominee to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; and the opposition to Sharon Block and Richard Griffin, two appointees to the National Labor Relations Board.

“I had no choice,” Reid told Vox in a May interview. “They stuck by their guns opposing everything [Obama] tried to do. And that’s where I found myself.”

It’s a place where current Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could soon find himself, too.

“It’s not a question of if the filibuster goes away; it’s only a question of when,” said Reid, who retired from his Nevada Senate seat in 2017, adding that he has “every bit of confidence in Chuck Schumer” and that he’s “not about to second guess what Chuck Schumer should do.”

In 2013, Reid systematically built a case for the rules change: For months, he put up votes on nominee after nominee, an effort that underscored the extent of Republican obstruction as the GOP attempted to slow many of them. Schumer, it seems, is now taking a similar approach.

Last week, he brought a bill to the floor knowing that Senate Republicans would mount a legislative filibuster. They did just that, with most Republicans voting to block a measure that would establish a bipartisan commission to investigate the deadly insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, a sign some Democrats say is a clear message about how little openness there is for working across the aisle.

Schumer and then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid seen during an unveiling ceremony of Reid’s official portrait on Capitol Hill in 2016.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Back when Reid eventually gathered the votes to blow up the filibuster for appointees, he was fed up with GOP intransigence. He stands by that decision today, even though these reforms were later used by Republican leader Mitch McConnell to justify altering the rules again and push through three Supreme Court justices with little or no Democratic support.

“I have no regret about having done so because Obama’s presidency was made as a result of what we did,” he said.

Reid’s realization — that Democrats needed to forge onward without Republicans — could hold a valuable lesson for Schumer as he weighs what to do about the filibuster. While Schumer is notably more constrained by the size of his caucus — and the opposition of moderates within it — he’ll ultimately have to decide just how aggressively to pursue possible reforms as well.

So far, he hasn’t ruled anything out. “Our preference is Republicans work with us to get things done, to get the big, bold change we need,” Schumer said in a March interview. “But if they don’t, like I said, everything’s on the table.”

Activists have long pushed for Schumer to move more quickly, especially given how little time Democrats have to implement policies like voting rights protections. They’ve been pleased with how he’s leveraged reconciliation to approve a sweeping Covid-19 relief bill, but have worried that he wasn’t setting up test votes fast enough and really making the case for eliminating the legislative filibuster.

Schumer confronted this issue head-on last week with both the vote on the January 6 commission and an announcement about a more aggressive timeline for Democratic priorities in June. On Friday, he announced that he would be holding a floor vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which Republicans filibustered during the Obama administration, and on the For the People Act, Democrats’ landmark voting rights bill, when lawmakers get back from recess.

A rules change seems inevitable if Democrats want to deliver on high-profile promises they’ve made on everything from voting rights to gun control. Currently, these bills need at least 60 votes to pass if they get filibustered — and there’s little indication that ten Republicans will join the 50-person Democratic caucus to support such efforts.

As Reid’s experience — both with nominees and with bills like the Affordable Care Act — demonstrated, waiting on Republicans only ever got Democrats so far.

“I think the biggest lesson is never trust Republicans and always expect the worst from Mitch McConnell,” says former Reid staffer Murshed Zaheed. “I don’t think Democrats should be giving Republicans any chance at this point.”

Republicans seem to be running the same obstruction playbook they did against Reid

Reid’s willingness to take a hard line with Republicans, so much so that former House Speaker John Boehner has since called him a “ruthless bastard,” was a product of enduring years of obstruction.

Now he supports doing away with the legislative filibuster, previously going so far as to say it should be the “first item of business” if Democrats retook the majority, in an NBC News interview last fall. In the May interview with Vox, he declined to comment on timing, deferring to Schumer.

During Schumer’s first five months as majority leader, Republican leadership has signaled very little willingness to operate in good faith: McConnell recently rejected the creation of the January 6 commission, suggesting that the effort was “slanted and unbalanced.” And even on the US Innovation and Competition Act, legislation that incorporated bipartisan discussion and amendments, McConnell has pushed to drag out debate and eat up floor time, delaying a final vote on the bill.

President Biden and Vice President Harris (center left) meet meet with members of congressional leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (far right) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (far left) on May 12.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Infrastructure talks are also moving slowly — a delay that’s prompted comparisons with the passage of the ACA, which didn’t end up garnering Republican support despite Democrats’ efforts to find points of compromise.

It’s a continuation of what Democrats previously experienced in the Senate minority. “What we’ve seen is that Republicans, McConnell, at least, become far more intransigent, far less willing to put things on the floor, far less willing to debate them,” Schumer told Vox. “We have to be aware that the Republican Party of today is not the Republican Party of 20 years or 15 years ago.”

McConnell has also been nearly as explicit about his aims this term as he was during the Obama administration. “One hundred percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration,” McConnell said in early May. “I’m anxious on stopping the Biden agenda — depending on what it is,” he later said as a caveat.

Schumer thus far has noted that he wants to give bipartisanship a chance, much like President Joe Biden, an effort that Reid says he supports. By going out of their way to court Republicans, Democrats can show moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) that they’ve exhausted their options before trying to go it alone.

Given how narrow his margins are, Schumer has to contend with the size of his caucus and moderate pushback in a way that Reid did not.

When he decided to amend filibuster rules, Reid had a bit more breathing room with 55 members in his caucus, while Schumer only has 50. Since it took 51 votes to make the rules change, Reid was able to let three members defect, including Manchin, who voted against it at the time. Reid also reportedly had Obama’s backing when he made this move, while neither Schumer nor Biden has yet taken a firm stance on eliminating the filibuster.

To complicate matters further, Democrats are presently fractured when it comes to policy, too. On priorities such as the For the People Act, the party’s lawmakers aren’t yet unified, a sign that support for such measures isn’t guaranteed even without the filibuster, and an indication that test votes may actually reveal Democratic divides.

Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (not pictured) have been vocal about preserving the filibuster.
Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Still, Schumer is majority leader, and activists hope he’ll find a way to bring the caucus together. “One of the important aspects of leadership in this position is guiding your caucus on critical issues. If Manchin has concerns, if [Sen. Kyrsten] Sinema has concerns, the job of the leader is to get to caucus unity,” says Fix Our Senate’s Eli Zupnick, a former Senate staffer and the head of a coalition of groups pushing for reform.

There’s only so much Schumer can do as a Majority Leader to try to sway members who are opposed to rules changes like Manchin and Sinema, former Democratic Leader Tom Daschle says. Schumer’s noted, though, that votes like the one on the January 6 commission can help demonstrate the limitations of bipartisanship to Senators who are holding out for it.

“I think the events of the last few days probably made every member of our caucus realize that a lot of our Republican colleagues are not willing to work with us on a whole lot of issues, even issues where we try to be bipartisan,” he said at a press conference on Friday.

Schumer and Reid have different leadership styles

Schumer and Reid are well known for their different styles and were often described as effective complements when they worked together. They overlapped for a few years in the House, and then later in Senate Democratic leadership when Reid became leader in 2004, and Schumer served as the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. While Reid shied away from the spotlight, Schumer was seen as Democrats’ communications guru as well as a master fundraiser.

“They became foxhole buddies in the 2006 and 2008 cycle when they picked up and tried to add to Democratic control of the Senate,” says former Reid staffer Jim Manley. Schumer’s success with Senate campaigns bolstered his case for succeeding Reid, and also earned him loyalty from members who he helped recruit or support. In those two cycles, Democrats picked up more than a dozen seats and outraised Republicans by millions of dollars.

“Schumer was DSCC chair for a long period of time, and he was a prolific fundraiser for members. He probably ran the DSCC as well or better than anyone has run it before,” said Daschle.

Several lawmakers laughed when asked to describe Reid and Schumer’s stylistic differences, given the stark contrast in their personalities.

Schumer is press-friendly, gregarious, and renowned for his congenial calls on his flip phone. Reid, meanwhile, was more reclusive, soft-spoken, and generally terse on and off the phone. “Reid’s phone calls were so efficient. He wouldn’t say hello when he got on the phone with you, [and] he would just hang up,” a Democratic aide told Vox. While Reid was the former boxer known for never mincing his critiques, Schumer is the longtime dealmaker who favors a big-tent coalition.

Then-Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer in the Capitol on March 26, 2019.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images
Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid talks about the financial bailout on the phone at his desk in the Capitol on October 2, 2008.
Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images

“Harry Reid does it with the fewest words possible, and nobody would say that about Chuck Schumer,” quipped Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). “One of the things about Chuck that’s really good is Chuck thinks out loud and is always strategizing by dialoguing with you.”

After he took over, Schumer opened up a standing weekly leadership meeting significantly, bringing nearly a quarter of the caucus into the fold, a marked contrast from the four-person meetings Reid would often hold. “He talks to the caucus and lets them lead to where he’s going to go,” said a Democratic aide. Under Schumer’s leadership, moderates like Manchin, who may have previously felt squeezed, became part of that group.

“The best way our caucus has worked successfully in the past is coming together,” Schumer emphasizes. “I have a leadership team — [12] senators, Monday nights. Who’s on that leadership team? Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Joe Manchin and Mark Warner.”

“Pretty much whatever [Harry] said goes. Chuck seems to ask a lot more questions and go with the flow of the entire caucus,” said Sen. Warren (D-MA).

Both leaders have kept a wide-ranging caucus together on pivotal votes: In 2009, Reid managed to keep all 60 Democrats united to pass the Affordable Care Act on a party-line vote. Schumer similarly kept all his members together as they blocked attempts to repeal the ACA, opposed President Trump’s tax cuts, and advanced a $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package without any Republicans earlier this year.

“The best [lesson from the minority] is unity — on every major issue,” says Schumer.

The two have also had their respective clashes with Republicans though Schumer has been viewed as less confrontational in the past.

“Reid was much more pugilistic. He wasn’t afraid to get into a fight with Republicans. Schumer might be doing that, but he might not be as quick to the draw,” Manley said.

Their takes on blowing up the nominees’ filibuster in 2013 is perhaps one example of these differences: At the time, Reid moved forward with the decision amid moderate Democratic outcry — and he’s since stood by it. Schumer, though he ended up voting for it, later said that he had opposed the move.

“I argued against it at the time. I said both for Supreme Court and in Cabinet should be 60 because on such important positions there should be some degree of bipartisanship,” Schumer said in a 2017 CNN interview. “Wish it hadn’t happened,” he added.

Since then, Schumer’s emphasized that “everything’s on the table” when it comes to the legislative filibuster, though it’s not clear where he personally stands on a rules change, as Politico reported this March. “I don’t think he personally wants to change the rules,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) told the publication. “I think Chuck would rather find a way to make this place work together.”

Previously, Schumer wouldn’t commit to preserving the filibuster in the Senate’s organizing resolution, and more recently he’s said that Democrats will only pursue bipartisanship for so long.

“Senate Democrats are doing everything we can to move legislation in a bipartisan way when and where the opportunity exists,” Schumer wrote in a Dear Colleague letter last week. “But we will not wait for months and months to pass meaningful legislation that delivers real results for the American people.”

Progressives are happy with Schumer’s work on Covid-19 — but they’re pushing for more

Progressive activists have been growing impatient with how Schumer is handling the filibuster and his willingness to keep on working with Republicans, a concern that his recent votes announcement helped address.

Many were impressed with how he used budget reconciliation to push through Covid-19 relief, but some had been worried that few bills expected to garner a filibuster had hit the floor up until this point. Although Schumer has the barest of majorities — and understandable limitations that come with that — activists have been eager to see him moving more quickly on at least establishing a case.

“I can’t count how many pieces of House-passed legislation are languishing on Schumer’s desk so far,” said Tré Easton, a senior adviser for Battle Born Collective, a group dedicated to advancing progressive policies. “It’s good to see some crucial votes getting slated for June, but there’s a long laundry list of to-do items and an ever-dwindling legislative clock.”

Thus far, after passing Covid-19 relief through reconciliation, Schumer has scheduled votes on multiple measures which have garnered bipartisan support including most recently, the Innovation and Competition Act — in an effort to show how Republicans could stymie even more collaborative bills.

Activists, however, have said they wanted to see more action on other Democratic priorities as well. Multiple House bills including the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, the Equality Act, the For the People Act, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the Dream Act, the PRO Act, DC statehood, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act, and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act all have yet to get a Senate vote — though that’s soon poised to change.

Vice President Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hold a press event on a stimulus bill in the White House Rose Garden on March 12.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

During the work period this June, Republicans will be forced to vote on both the Paycheck Fairness Act and the For the People Act. And since they’re expected to filibuster both measures, those votes are expected to add to the argument Democrats have for blowing up the rule.

“It took a lot of GOP obstruction of nominees before the caucus was ready to change the rules” in 2013, says Fix Our Senate’s Zupnick, who was heartened to see Democrats beginning to establish that same pattern this year. “Sen. Reid put up a bunch of nominees that kept getting filibustered in 2013 to make his — ultimately successful — case for rules reform in November.”

“I’m very encouraged they are going to bring the For the People Act to the floor and do whatever it takes to get it done,” he added.

Schumer has signaled that he doesn’t have much patience for potential Republican obstruction, and that he’s focused on bringing even more House bills to the floor. “This is going to be totally different than when McConnell was majority leader,” Schumer told Vox. “He had the legislative graveyard. He never had debate; he never let these bills come to light.”

Activists are eager to see what comes of these votes, which could reveal just how willing Democratic leaders — and the broader caucus — are to pursuing more ambitious policy goals on their own.

“Learn the lesson of the eight years of Obama that you can’t wait for bipartisanship. Why does it have to bipartisan? Go it alone,” says Mary Panzetta, an Indivisible chapter leader in New York.

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