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Senate Majority Leader's Biography Badly Needs a Rewrite

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Reid touts himself as a “consensus builder” but his personal attacks and name-calling paint a different picture, Stuart Rothenberg writes.

“He has earned the trust of both Democrats and Republicans” and has a “reputation for integrity and fairness,” says the biography of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on his official Senate website.

The self-congratulatory 1,566-word tribute, which includes praise from Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and Parade magazine, also calls the Nevada Democrat a “consensus builder.” But as Reid contemplates filibuster changes, and after the majority leader’s non-role in averting the fiscal cliff and his relatively recent nasty attacks on a couple of political opponents, his online bio needs a rewrite.

If Reid really were a consensus builder who cared about getting things done, he would not have accused Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, of running a “dictatorship” and of putting personal goals ahead of the good of the country.

“John Boehner seems to care more about keeping his speakership than about keeping the nation on firm financial footing,” Reid charged in a speech before an empty chamber in late December that suggested he was more interested in scoring partisan political points than working out a deal.

Reid’s criticism of Boehner came about four months after he said on the Senate floor that someone he refused to identify told him that the reason GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney had not released his income tax records was that Romney had not paid any federal income taxes in 10 years.

“His poor father must be so embarrassed about his son,” Reid said to Huffington Post about Romney, with a kind of cruelty that I hope isn’t typical of the people who live in, or grew up in, Searchlight, Nev., the small town where the majority leader was raised and where for years he has said his values were formed.

Reid, 72, recently became Nevada’s longest-serving member of Congress and has always been partisan. I don’t know whether he has always been mean. But I do know that he has become increasingly selective in his memories, looking more and more hypocritical.

Actually, Reid’s recent behavior and comments aren’t at odds with past utterings, as Carl Cannon noted in his engaging Jan. 9 RealClearPolitics.com column, “Harry Reid’s Corrosive Words.” And less than six months ago, CNN correspondent Dana Bash wrote this about Reid: “As a politician, he has never been afraid to punch below the belt. ... Through the years he has called President George W. Bush a loser and a liar, named then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan a political hack and gone after Sen. John McCain during the 2008 presidential race as someone too temperamental to be president.”

We all know that politics is a full-contact sport (and is becoming rougher and rougher each year), and nobody expects Reid, the leader of his party in the Senate and a former boxer, to act like Mother Teresa. But Reid’s behavior can’t possibly enhance his standing in a town where party leaders must walk a fine line between partisanship and compromise, between pushing their agendas and cooperating with the opposition.

Interestingly, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., didn’t end up finding a “dance partner” in Reid for negotiating a fiscal cliff agreement at the end of last month. He had to turn to a former senator, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., with whom he has had a long working relationship. People who know the Hill far better than I do say that Reid preferred to go over the cliff rather than take the deal that Biden got, which is why the Nevada Democrat didn’t want to “dance” with McConnell.

Still, it says something that “consensus builder” Reid and so many of his Democratic colleagues on the Hill were eager to go over the cliff to maximize their advantage over the GOP at the same time that Democrats were criticizing House Republicans for being willing to go over the cliff. And it is worth noting that Reid was content to be only a wallflower when McConnell and Biden were dancing.

Now, Reid’s reputation is once again on the line as the Senate addresses possible changes to the filibuster. Will we see the fair consensus builder, the institutionalist who likes to talk about how respected he is by Republicans? Or will Reid move ahead without Republicans — the “nuclear” option?

Yes, Reid is relatively soft-spoken. He is a serious, skilled legislator who understands that the nature of a legislative body requires compromise and can be remarkably unpartisan when he wants. Of course, he is also one heck of a campaigner and politician, an “indomitable” force, as veteran Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston recently put it. But the majority leader’s personal attack on Boehner, combined with his circulating of a rumor about Romney’s taxes, show an unflattering side of the man who apparently still sees himself as an advocate of civility, fairness and reasonableness. “I’m not going to stoop to name-calling,” Reid said after the House adjourned a few weeks ago without voting on a bill to help the victims of Superstorm Sandy, according to the website TPM.

Really, Harry? Starting when, now?

Stuart Rothenberg (@stupolitics) is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (rothenbergpoliticalreport.com)

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