High-Wire Act Imperils Reid

Posted February 12, 2010 at 5:35pm

Updated: 11:05 a.m.

With polls showing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) trailing even the lowliest of no-name GOP candidates trying to defeat him this year, it is fast becoming clear that a major goal of Reid’s new “Jobs Agenda” is to save one of the most important jobs of all: his own.

Voter anger in Nevada over the state’s 13 percent unemployment rate and the highest home foreclosure rate in the country is palpable, and Reid has been trying to show that he can deliver substantive remedies to his state’s woes.

While Reid spokesman Jon Summers rejected the notion that his boss is pursuing job creation bills in order to shore up his own re-election prospects, Summers acknowledged that the state’s situation is a big part of Reid’s push this year.

“The jobs bill frankly is being done because the people of Nevada need it,” Summers said. “When you look at some of the biggest issues facing our country — unemployment, housing —
Nevada has been ground zero. Sen. Reid is leveraging his position on those issues that have been a top concern in Nevada and across the country.”

Reid was the chief “agitator,” according to one senior Senate Democratic aide, for trying to get a job creation bill done before the Senate left town for this week’s recess, despite the crippling snowstorms that hit Washington, D.C., last week.

“In spite of the [blizzards], he was the one who was constantly needling folks so we would have something ready for the floor,” the aide said. “He at least wanted a placeholder for after the recess.”

Reid had originally said he wanted the bill done before Senators went home last week. As it stands, Reid and other endangered incumbents have little to show for their work over the past four weeks, outside of a stalled health care bill and a controversial increase in the national debt limit. Still, Reid is set to talk jobs and the economy with President Barack Obama in Nevada this Friday.

However, Reid muddied his own “jobs” message last week when he decided to shelve a bipartisan Finance Committee measure in favor of a more targeted measure, and the episode highlights the problems Reid faces as he tries to fulfill his role as leader while being mindful of political perceptions back home.

Because of his decision, Reid quickly came under fire for killing bipartisanship at a time when Obama is calling for more. Another endangered Democratic incumbent, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), publicly lambasted Reid for the decision and urged him to reconsider.

How Solid a Jobs Package?

But several Democrats said Reid was faced with a difficult decision as he watched the Finance jobs bill take shape last week.

On the one hand, the measure being devised by Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) gave Reid the prospect of a much-needed bipartisan accomplishment for a Senate majority that recently lost its ability to shut down minority filibusters. On the other hand, as Reid discovered last week, news reports were describing the emerging deal as more a sop to lobbyists than a true job creation measure.

As one Democratic source pointed out, Baucus and Grassley had an $85 billion measure that had only about $15 billion worth of job-creation incentives in it. The bulk of the Finance bill was made up of tax credit extensions for business interests that Republicans had sought.

Crafting questionable backroom deals is an issue Reid is newly sensitive about, following the withering criticism he faced nationally and at home after he negotiated a number of legislative deals on the health care bill, including those intended to win the votes of centrist Democrats such as Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Mary Landrieu (La.). The provisions those two Senators secured in the health care measure were respectively dubbed the “Cornhusker Kickback” and the “Louisiana Purchase.”

Reid also was already questioning the amount of GOP support the measure was actually going to garner.

“This was a perfect storm,” the Democratic source said. “You had uncertainty about how many Republicans this supposedly bipartisan deal was going to attract in the first place, uncertainty in the caucus about Max Baucus giving away the farm on a deal that could take us nowhere and a Nevada electorate concerned about deals on extraneous matters that Reid had made on other legislation.”

Summers said Reid was likely to face criticism no matter what decision he had made and defended his boss.

“What Sen. Reid has done is he’s turned this into a bill that’s focused on jobs,” Summers said. “It cuts to the chase of what we need to be doing.”

Summers also said the four provisions left in the bill — a Highway Trust Fund extension, a new hire tax break, a small-business expensing tax credit and a continuation of the Build America Bonds program — are bipartisan proposals that should draw GOP support.

But Reid’s decision to pursue a smaller bill could prevent him from ultimately passing the measure, given the GOP’s negative reaction to the development last week.

Jon Ralston, publisher of the influential Ralston Report and a veteran Nevada politics watcher, argued that Reid’s political future largely hangs on his ability to demonstrate he remains effective as a Senator.

According to Ralston, jobs and the economy are the top issues facing not only Reid but all of the state’s elected officials, and Sue Lowden, one of top GOP contenders for the party’s Senate nomination, has already begun airing ads attacking Reid on jobs.

For many politicians, Reid’s clumsy handling of last Thursday’s decision to abandon the bipartisan jobs bill could have spelled trouble, particularly in a year when voters are demanding a less partisan approach. That would be particularly true for lawmakers with Reid’s penchant for getting in trouble for making impolitic comments.

But, Ralston says, because most voters already have a well-defined view of Reid — a rarity in most races at this point in the election — Reid’s only remaining political card to play is the results card.

“His biggest problem is there are relatively few people at this point … who are undecided on him. He essentially has a very narrow margin of error,” Ralston said. “If he doesn’t get a jobs bill, if he doesn’t get health care, if he can’t demonstrate that he can get things done in the Senate with 59 votes, then I think his chances of getting re-elected are greatly diminished.”

“It’s the only case he has left to make,” Ralston added.

If, however, Reid can successfully move jobs legislation, his decision to pursue a narrower measure based on Democratic proposals could fade to the background for most voters.

“I think it’s too early. We don’t know how this will be viewed in six months. What if health care gets passed? What if a jobs bill gets passed and people are happy with it?” Ralston said.

Hard Numbers to Digest

Reid certainly faces tough odds in his re-election bid. Only 16 percent of Nevadans have a favorable opinion of him, according to a recent Rasmussen poll. But as Reid’s luck would have it, none of the GOP candidates vying to face him in November has a higher favorability rating. Republican candidate Danny Tarkanian also had a 16 percent rating, while Lowden’s was only at 12 percent.

Still, when it comes to hypothetical election matchups, Reid trailed Tarkanian by 8 points and Lowden by 6 points. Ten Republicans will face off in a June 8 primary.

“The partisan and politically tone-deaf manner with which Harry Reid has approached this jobs debate underscores one of the key reasons he is so unpopular in Nevada right now,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said. “His state has 13 percent unemployment, with roughly 180,000 Nevadans out of work, and Harry Reid is sitting in Washington playing partisan politics with a jobs bill. He’s simply out of touch with the everyday concerns of his constituents and that’s why poll after poll shows that come November, Nevadans will be seeking new leadership in Washington.”

Indeed, there’s been a string of bad news for Reid in Nevada on the jobs front. Though Reid finally won a nearly career-long battle to safeguard the state from the dangers of a nuclear waste site 90 miles outside of Las Vegas, the Obama administration’s decision to zero out funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository also means the loss of two dozen jobs for Nevadans already experiencing higher unemployment than the national average, according to a Thursday Las Vegas Review-Journal article. Then Nevada recently missed out on a portion of the $8 billion in funding for high-speed rail that Reid inserted into last year’s economic stimulus measure, and other stimulus funds have been slow to make it to the hardest hit areas in Nevada, according to local news reports.

Summers said Reid has been aggressively trying to find other uses for the Yucca site in order to preserve jobs there, and he pointed out that the state has two potential high-speed rail projects. One project’s application for stimulus money was mishandled at the state level and the other didn’t apply, he said.

“Jobs and the economy are the No. 1 topic in Nevada, and Reid has to show something and rather quickly,” the Democratic source said. “The bad news is that whatever happens nationally is less important than what happens locally, and his ability to affect what happens locally even in the best of times is not good.”