Reid Tripped Up By Deteriorating Political Landscape

Democrats in the U.S. Senate have been dealing with a deteriorating political landscape for several months now, and the challenges keep increasing. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who's responsible for reviving the president's agenda in the Senate, is worried about holding his majority together in this fall's elections. On top of that, he's got his own re-election to think about in November.

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Democrats in the U.S. Senate have been dealing with a deteriorating political landscape for several months now, and their prospects for the November election took another hit this week with the announced retirement of Evan Bayh, a two-term Democrat from Indiana. The man on whom all this weight is falling is Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader who's in charge of the president's agenda in the Senate. And Reid has his own election to worry about in Nevada. Joining us to talk about the mounting difficulties for the Senate leader is NPR News analyst Juan Williams.

First of all, tell us a little bit about Harry Reid. Looking at him from the outside, he's not exactly brimming over with charisma.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Yeah, I don't know if he would appreciate that description, but you're right. And he's also gaffe-prone. I mean, he's a guy who said, you know, in his opinion the Iraq War was a failure, and has made controversial comments even about President Obama, being light-skinned, not having a Negro dialect, awkward comments.

Part of the problem for him is that whereas he was previously seen as a moderate Democrat and an effective legislator who knows the rules of the Senate like the back of his hand, just terrific, now he's seen as stumbling and bumbling and unable to get legislation through the body, even though Democrats, of course, had until recently, that super-majority of 60 votes in the Senate.

WERTHEIMER: And on top of that, he seems to be - after four terms - in some kind of political trouble in his home state.

WILLIAMS: Linda, this is really interesting, but if you look at the polls, despite his claims to be, you know, the most powerful Democrats in Washington able to bring home the bacon for Nevada, right now, he has a 52 percent unfavorable rating, according to a poll in the Las Vegas Review Journal - and general sense that when it comes to things like health care legislation, Harry Reid's been making deals, but he hasn't gotten anything done.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we've got all these big bills, which the House has passed: health care, climate change, financial regulation. And they're all stacked up over the Senate like so many giant airliners. Harry Reid is having a lot of trouble bringing them in for a landing.

WILLIAMS: He is, and there was a clear illustration of that just in the last few days about a jobs bill, where there was an attempt to create a bipartisan jobs bill, $85 billion. Harry Reid rejects it, and then comes out with a bill that's about $15 billion and focused only on tax cuts for employers to hire people in some highway construction.

And everybody, from the White House to Democrats to Republicans, are saying: What happened? Well, what happened is Harry Reid decided, you know what? This is an opportunity to simply not force the vote down the throats of liberal Democrats who had some concerns about the bill, and instead to put the pressure on Republicans, to make it clear that Republicans were opposed to popular pieces of the bill. Well now the whole thing is in danger of falling apart, and people are saying: What kind of leadership is this from Harry Reid, who thought that he was being tactical?

WERTHEIMER: Well, one of his big problems, obviously, is that the Republicans won't help.

WILLIAMS: Correct.

WERTHEIMER: I mean, whatever happens has to happen in the Democratic side. I think a lot of people wonder why Harry Reid doesn't just call the Republicans' bluff and say, okay, we've got 59 votes. We'll just pass a few bills here. If you want a filibuster, do it.

WILLIAMS: Right. Though Democrats and Harry Reid feel that they would come out looking better as a result of making the Republicans show their hands. Now Democrats are a little bit uncertain, and the White House uncertain about this. So the whole notion that you bring up is why doesn't Harry Reid act more forcefully and say this is what we're doing, and this is our record of accomplishment?

So their criticism of Harry Reid not only comes from Republicans - who have been, without a doubt, obstructionist during this Senate term - but from Democrats and, you know, you think about what happened with Evan Bayh this week. He didn't even call Harry Reid to tell Harry Reid that he was going to retire. It's a gesture of how little Evan Bayh thought about the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid.

WERTHEIMER: That's NPR News analyst Juan Williams.

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