Harry Reid, relieved from his duties as Senate majority leader by voters in November, seems not to have gotten the memo. Demoted but not diminished, the minority leader is pursuing his role as chief conservative crazymaker with newfound passion. “The answer is not only no, but hell no,” he told reporters on Tuesday when asked whether he’d support the bipartisan deal worked out by senators Ron Wyden and Orrin Hatch to give the president authority to fast-track trade deals through Congress. “Be very careful that you don’t destroy this human-trafficking legislation that is so important … My senators are not going to sit back like shrinking violets and let this stuff go forward without responding,” he warned Republicans this week, after they reached a deal that was previously held up by fights over abortion and immigration. A vote on the bill, which will finally allow Loretta Lynch’s attorney general confirmation vote to go forward this week, comes a week after Reid threatened to force a vote on her confirmation if McConnell didn’t schedule one soon.
In March, Reid announced that he would retire at the end of 2016, ending a ten-year reign over Senate Democrats that, depending on your point of view, resulted in major legislative victories or totally ruined the Senate. Even the details surrounding his retirement were not without controversy: Reid said he sustained serious facial injuries after an exercise band he was working out with broke on New Year’s Day, but insisted it had nothing to do with his decision to retire. That didn’t stop conservatives from running scores of stories analyzing the floor plans of his home and speculating that he might have been beat up by the mob, or his brother. “I think a lot of people … kinda don’t like me as a person, and I think that’s unfortunate,” Reid told CNBC’s John Harwood, when he interviewed the Democrat in a Vegas casino last week. He delivered the line in his perfect deadpan, but there’s no doubt that he knows the power of his words. “I don’t mean to be mean-spirited, but he is a lump of coal,” he said of Mitch McConnell, not a hint of humor in his voice. “He believes that coal is the salvation of the world.” When asked to comment on the 2016 Republican field, he said flatly, “You know, I don’t really care. I think they’re all losers.”
Any longtime watcher of Reid will tell you that this late-stage DGAF phase of his career is only a slightly more unfiltered version of the old Harry Reid. Reid is a politician from another era, and his career has been defined by a certain external hardness that has remained unchanged, or become more resolute, as he navigated politics in the modern era. Born in 1939 in a one-room home in Searchlight, Nevada, with no indoor plumbing, the son of a laundress and a miner who committed suicide when his son was 23, Reid made it to law school in Washington in the early ‘60s and then returned home to launch his political career in the State Assembly. As chair of the Nevada Gaming Commission in 1978, Reid was videoed by the FBI trying to choke a man who tried to bribe him. In 1982 he was elected to the House, and four years after that, to the Senate. Reid became leader after Tom Daschle was defeated in 2004 and helped engineer the Senate Democratic takeover by plotting electoral strategy and recruiting new candidates. Jim Manley, a former Reid aide, summed up his approach to winning elections to the Washington Examiner thusly: “If it rubs people the wrong way, so be it. His goal is to win.”
Reid won on a number of big issues: passing health care and Wall Street reform, the stimulus package, getting key Obama administration appointments through Congress — but the winning-at-all-costs strategy made Republicans crazy. In 2005, he called the president a “loser,” a statement for which he had to later apologize. In 2012, at the height of the presidential campaign, Reid took to the Senate floor to declare that an anonymous source told him Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes in ten years. This was not true, and Romney would later prove it, after facing pressure from Reid and other Democrats, when he released his tax returns. When asked whether he regretted falsely impugning the GOP candidate last month, Reid’s response was “Romney didn’t win, did he?” And in the months before Democrats lost the Senate in 2014, Reid triggered the “nuclear option,” eliminating the filibuster for most Senate nominations. The move infuriated Republicans, but it also raised a new possibility some Democrats now worry about: that a GOP majority could choose to eliminate the filibuster altogether, making it easier for a single party to pass its agenda through Congress without much say from the opposition. Even some Democrats grew tired of Reid’s refusal to let legislation come to the floor for a vote. “Harry Reid’s a good man,” Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia, said when asked about Reid’s legacy on Monday. “His leadership and the things he thought would work did not.” If Reid has any regrets, he isn’t letting on.