SEARCHLIGHT, Nevada - In the shadow of Harry Reid Elementary School is the Searchlight Cemetery, one of the least welcoming resting places the living mind can conjure. "HUMAN BURIALS ONLY - NO PETS OR ANIMALS," warns a sign on the chain-link fence surrounding it. Harriet Reid and her husband, John, are buried under the rough mix of rock and sand. Their son, Harry, took took his place in this cemetery in June of 1972, after a year of sobriety that capped a life of alcoholism.
His wife, Inez, had called the younger Harry at his law office in Las Vegas to break the news that June day and he drove the 60 miles south to Searchlight to find his father's hand still holding the gun. The elder Reid father had etched, scraped and burned his name into any surface he could find in town, including on the timbers and mine buckets he worked with every day. Digging his father's grave, Reid found a brownish rock more than a foot across with his father's distinct mark, the H merging into the R. Reid and his brothers made it his gravestone, where it still sits today. "It's as permanent a mark as a man can make for himself on this earth. It won't be washed off by the rain. It won't be faded by the sun. It won't be diminished by time. It says: I was here," Reid would later write in his memoir, The Good Fight: Hard Lessons from Searchlight to Washington.
The still-living Harry Reid will wind up here one day, but he isn't one to think about leaving a mark before he goes. "He'd laugh if you asked him that," says Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) about Reid and his legacy. "He doesn't care how somebody's going to remember him down the road." Interviews with dozens of senators in both parties simply reaffirmed Cantwell's assertion: Reid just wants to get things done.
Reid, in that respect, is merely the contemporary Democratic Party distilled to its essence. Over the past decade and a half, the party of FDR, JFK and LBJ drifted away from its foundation and found refuge in a transactional politics that is being forcefully rejected by voters. Presented with the chance to make history, Democrats made deals -- with pill makers, with device makers, with hospital executives, with hedge fund managers, with swaps dealers, with auto dealers, with "non-bank financial institutions." As the tide turned, Democrats found those corporate interests scurrying back to the GOP. When the party turned back to its people, they were nowhere to be found. Compromise in pursuit of a broadly popular, unifying agenda is a forgivable sin. Compromise just to put points on the board leads to a blowout.
It's not Harry Reid's fault. Reid is a taskmaster, and his charge was to carry out President Obama's agenda, a man he wanted to see in the White House nearly from the time Obama came to the Senate. In the fall of 2006, Reid and his longtime friend and Searchlight employee Judith Hill were in Reid's living room when Hill spotted a Time magazine graced with Obama's image. That man, said Hill, should be our next president. "Good choice," Reid told her, Hill says, clearly indicating with his smile that Obama was his pick, too. Hill nearly fainted when Obama called her on her cell phone from the White House to thank her for her early lobbying of Reid.
Reid, however, has been much better for Obama than Obama has been for Reid. Obama established expectations he must have known he couldn't meet, abandoned Reid in the middle of the fight over the public option and tied his hands with a series of deals with special interest groups and twice advised tourists not to travel to the economically devastated Las Vegas.
That Reid is even in contention going into Tuesday's election is a testament to his pure determination -- and the outright lunacy of his Republican opponent, Sharron Angle, a candidate who thinks Sharia law has been implemented in American cities, says it's not a senator's duty to create jobs, and has relied on race-baiting hysterics to paint Reid as little more than a freelance coyote who shepherds scary-looking illegal immigrants across the border in his spare time.
Reid thinks the backlash against Democrats is a matter of perception. "The biggest thing we didn't do right is tout what we have done. We were so busy, this hole was deep. Every morning I got up, we got up, and clogged the hole. We really didn't have time to talk about the things we accomplished," he said in a recent interview.
There's something to that. FDR and LBJ, during their bursts of legislative activity, didn't have to contend with an aggressive, 24/7 media covering the details of every deal leading to every advance. And there was no progressive media standing sentry off the Senate floor, magnifying the smallest sign of betrayal, triggering millions of enraged activists to light up the Senate switchboard. But that vigilance is now firmly a part of the Senate landscape.
That outside pressure could feel overwhelming to Reid at times. In September, a Huffington Post reporter bumped into Reid in the Senate reception room just off the Senate floor. Reid ribbed him about his job, and the reporter joked back that it was his task to do whatever it is Arianna Huffington tells him to do. "That's how I feel about it, too, sometimes," Reid quipped.
Harry Reid doesn't say goodbye. President Obama learned that the awkward way when he was left wondering if the conversation was over or if the Majority Leader was still on the other line after the pair congratulated each other on the passage of health care reform. (He wasn't.)
"He's a Westerner. He gets to the point. He doesn't mince words. And he hangs up on ya," said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). "Once, the president said, 'Whew! He hung up on me!' And his adviser said, 'Look, he hangs up on everybody.' It's endearing. It's a very endearing quality. People love him for it." (Baucus' former chief of staff Jim Messina had gone to work as a top Obama aide.)
Baucus said he's been hung up on, as well. "You talk to him and he gets his work done and when he's done, he hangs up," he said. "But not because he's angry -- because he's just finished the conversation."
Several other senators told me they've also heard the dial tone and realized the conversation was over. "He is an adult and wants to get things done," said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).
Reid is perhaps the best-liked majority leader Democrats have ever had. The position itself is historically a relatively recent creation. There have only been ten Democrats to serve in the position and there was no majority leader before the 1920s. Both leaders to serve in the role directly preceding Lyndon Johnson were ousted by voters, as was Tom Daschle, Reid's captain.
Reid's opacity masks what is, at bottom, a simple approach to life. It may seem odd that a Mormon convert and a teetotaler who doesn't gamble has been elected to represent Las Vegas for decades. But Las Vegas is an explicitly transactional town, with cash and connections as currency, from the bell hop and the call girl to the mine owner and hotel/casino magnate. It's a place where status and political power can be purchased for a price, regardless of the buyer's background, upbringing, pedigree or criminal record. Washington is, at root, the same, although with a gloss of sophistication to make it appear a high-minded civic pursuit. Reid gets that: he put himself through law school by working as a Capitol Police officer in the early 1960s, and remembers escorting drunken members of Congress home.
Reid's politics are a source of curiosity among political observers. He subsumes his agenda to the extent that it's hard to know what he stands for. "He's pro-life, right?" Landrieu said. But it's simpler than that, said Cantwell. "Harry Reid is an old-fashioned Western Democrat. By that I mean, I think he lives to those values that you'd expect a Democrat from the West to adhere to. You may not see that upfront, every single day, or on every vote," she said.
Reid, growing up in poverty, has a class edge to him that comes out only occasionally. "I never went to Kennebunkport as a kid. I never went anywhere. And I've got no blue blood in my veins, just some desert sand," he recalls in his memoir, when President Bush tries to rope Reid and he in as "two dudes from the West." HuffPost asked Reid about his hesitation in supporting Ben Bernanke's re-confirmation to lead the Federal Reserve, a position that gave the White House a heart attack. "I think that he, personally, didn't cause the trouble, whereas I think Greenspan did," said Reid, explaining why he came around. "How do I say this? I'm not much for relationships in the sense of trying to get on somebody's good side who works for the Federal Reserve Board. We usually don't have much in common."
Whatever his politics, a majority leader in the thick of a negotiation can do little more, however, than move chips around on the table. It takes the White House to change the game and Obama made Reid's job more challenging rather than less. Before charging Reid with passing an ambitious agenda, he told the nation that the entire thing would be done out in the open, even broadcast on C-SPAN.
"I think that there were times when he could've used more help from the White House," said Franken delicately. "I think that the idea that everything was going to be on C-SPAN, that at a certain point someone from the White House could've said, 'You know, that's unrealistic. That's not the way it works.' Because if you carry through with that, then no senator could talk to another senator unless they were in front of a camera or everything in front of a camera would become a kabuki dance... So it created this weird notion of how these things happen that put Harry in a very difficult position that he didn't deserve to be in."
The deal (not hashed out on C-SPAN) that may have bothered seniors and the party's base more than any other was the one cut with the drug makers. In exchange for a promise to cut drug costs by some $80 billion dollars -- plus a kickback of $150 million in election spending, a pile of which was spent in Nevada, backing Reid -- Democrats agreed not to negotiate for cheaper drug prices, reclassify some drugs to save the government billions or allow for the reimportation of cheaper drugs from abroad. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), the Senate's lead proponent of reimporation, doesn't blame Reid. "The White House made a deal with the pharmaceutical industry and Harry as Democratic leader, I think, felt he had to just run the play as it was called," Dorgan told me. "Harry ran the play that the White House called, and I think he'd probably tell you that as well."
Dorgan pushed ahead anyway and thinks he'd have won if he hadn't had to battle the weight of the White House. "I didn't feel [bound by the deal], of course, and pushed ahead anyway, much to the consternation of some. There was never any bad blood about it at all. I understood what he was doing, that he had certain responsibilities as Democratic leader," he said. "I think on a straight-up vote without intervention by some deal made by the White House, I think we'd have won."
If Dorgan had prevailed, Democrats on the campaign trail could tell seniors that thanks to them they can dramatically cut their drug costs by ordering name-brand drugs and having them shipped from Canada. Instead, they're explaining why they cut Medicare. (They cut the wasteful boondoggle that is Medicare Advantage, but the details are irrelevant.)
Reid's gift of knowing exactly what to give up to get what he needs brought Democrats an unending slew of legislative victories -- and simultaneously lost them the American people. "He knows if you're asking for 100 percent of something, he knows if you'll take 75. And the next day he'll say, 'Well, guess what, I got 75 for you.' But in the meantime he got 12 other things done as well," Cantwell said.
"He very much understands his caucus," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) told me, "almost intimately, in the sense that he knows how far he can push certain members and just where he can't push you beyond." He knew that he could win Landrieu's vote on health care by sending federal money to Louisiana, just as he knew he could get Sen. Ben Nelson by pumping Medicaid money into Nebraska. When Sen. John Cornyn, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, heard of the Louisiana Purchase and Cornhusker Kickback, he knew that the GOP would win its special election in Massachusetts and strip Democrats of their filibuster-proof majority.
The Democratic base has long had an uneasy relationship with Reid. He is often compared unfavorably to LBJ, whose aggressive and physical lobbying abilities have taken on mythic proportions. "He never calls up and asks you to vote for something. No, he's never done that. That's not the Democratic way," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), arguing that Reid already knows how you're going to vote. The Senate leader's job puts a public-opinion target on his back. "The American people don't particularly like him. They wouldn't like anyone who was majority leader or speaker. I don't think any of that makes a difference because I know him to be completely effective."
Reid's job is not an easy one: You try dealing with Ben Nelson on a daily basis without losing your temper. On Tuesdays, when Democrats hold their weekly meeting, the senior senator from Nebraska spends the vast majority of the time outside in the hall answering and re-answering reporters questions, skillfully talking endlessly while saying little. He then dips into the luncheon for a handful of minutes and reliably bounces out early, to re-answer the questions he's already answered several times over (with the beleaguered local Nebraska reporter forced to stand guard in case Nelson veers from the script and happens to make news).
Nelson held out his votes on the stimulus, health care and Wall Street reform until the last moment. Nelson said he enjoys giving Reid heartburn. In an interview for this story, he said that Reid and his staff often check in with him to see which way he's going. "That's when I get a chance to pull a gotcha," said Nelson. "I'll tell him I'm going to vote against him, or something like that, for just a few minutes then say: 'Gotcha!' But he always takes it with the humor that's intended."
Dianne Feinstein described Reid's sense of humor as "puckish" and Cantwell said that one of the downsides of having Al Franken as a colleague is that the men in the caucus try to out-funny the funny man. They all end up embarrassing themselves, she said, except Reid. "I don't think he'd mind my saying this," Franken said when HuffPost asked him about Reid's backroom comedic skills. "I once suggested that we get rid of the seniority system," said Franken. Realizing the suggestion had bombed, he tried to back out. "That was a joke," Franken promised.
"That's why you had to quit comedy and go into the Senate," Reid deadpanned, said Franken. "Or something like that. And it got a big laugh from everybody. I mean, he's not the funniest guy I've ever met -- Dan Akroyd, Steve Martin are funnier, but he's a funny guy."
Reid has a unique, deeply un-political style. When HuffPost interviewed Reid for this story, his initial answers were as short as he could make them, the opposite of a typical politician's flurry of fluff. He only perked up when asked about the jockeying by his two lieutenants, Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer, for the job of majority leader that would open up if Reid loses. His answer was quintessential Reid: looping and elliptical, but with a clear point or two if the listener follows along.
"How can I describe this?" Reid said, pausing. "I don't follow hockey. They're playing in the Stanley Cup. There was a game last night. Don't know who won it. Don't care. That's how I feel about that going on between them. They're both close personal friends and neither one of them would do anything to hurt me personally. So I feel about them like I do the Stanley Cup. I could care less. Don't follow it. My hockey analogy--but I've been to two hockey games. What a disappointment. Want to hear my theory on hockey?"
"I went to watch the great Gretzky. I go. He's there. He's gone. He's there. He's gone. I think, 'Well, maybe the next game will be better.' The next game is the same. That was enough for me. I was with Gretzky at a fight in Las Vegas before I came back here. I'll tell you that was a slightly built -- I thought these hockey players were these big, rough-tough guys. He was just so--he looked lithe. Is that a word? Anyway, so that's enough of Durbin-Schumer. That's how I feel about it. I don't even think about it. I get up in the morning; I read the sports page first thing. But when it's hockey on the first page, I get over that quick."
That may sound like gibberish to the uninitiated, but a piece of it was published in the evening newsletter, HuffPost Hill, following the interview, and it resonated with Durbin and Schumer: By acknowledging that the fight was going on, Reid legitimized it. That was good for Schumer, the number three Democrat, but piqued the Durbin camp.
Reid also earns points with his colleagues with old fashioned retail politics. Cantwell said she mentioned to Reid once that a Nevada relative of hers had died but hadn't received honors for his military service due to a bureaucratic mix-up. She didn't ask, but Reid fixed it. "Harry jumped in and had people there who showed up and they had a salute to my uncle. He's in the middle of running a bill on the floor. I don't even know how he got it done," she said. "If you're a member and you go to Harry with a problem in your state, Harry's there to fix it and yet still have the ability to be the leader and get all that done."
She cites a moment in the summer of 2003 that opened her eyes to Reid's legislative skill. There were just hours before the Senate planned to adjourn for the August recess, and Republicans were fuming that Democrats were blocking a vote on the party's energy bill.
"The Republicans had offered a bad bill and [Pete] Domenici was on the floor and they hadn't consulted us, and hadn't done anything, and Domenici made the mistake of saying something like, 'Well, you know, if you won't let us do this, you should at least let us do the bill that was previously introduced,'" recalls Cantwell. Domenici was referring to a Democratic energy bill.
"Harry just says, 'Okay.' And literally Harry just called them on it in the middle of the debate, says, 'Okay,' and basically caught Domenici in his own words," said Cantwell. The liberals in the caucus -- including Cantwell -- were apoplectic. Surely, they figured, Tom Delay would destroy the bill in conference and it would come back a giant ATM machine for oil companies.
Reid persuaded Daschle, then the majority leader, to call the GOP bluff. The bill passed, and Delay did as expected in conference. When the bill came back, it was a goodie bag only Dick Cheney could love. Republicans had overreached, as Cantwell assumes Reid knew they would. The bill was skewered in the press as worse than useless and a corporate fraud; Democrats killed it in the Senate. Cantwell says now that she was wrong to doubt Reid's move.
"Make no mistake, Harry is 20 steps ahead of you. He might make it appear sometimes that he's not, but he is. When he says, 'Here's where we are. I don't know what we're going to do,' he knows what we're going to do," says Cantwell.
The quick move on the floor came with an unintended benefit. Joe Lieberman and John McCain had been trying in vain to move a climate change bill. A Lieberman staffer tried to take advantage of the situation, saying that Lieberman would object to the deal -- by denying unanimous consent -- unless Bill Frist and Reid promised him a floor vote on their legislation. But Lieberman was in New Hampshire campaigning for president. McCain, however, was around, and made the same demand of Frist.
The climate bill would get a vote that fall, with 55 senators voting against it and 43 for it. Five Republicans voted yes. It was a high-water mark.
Harry Reid, in the 111th Congress, established himself as one of the most powerful and prolific majority leaders in the Senate's history, overseeing a two-year period that rivaled the early '30s and mid-'60s. But where FDR left his rubber stamp on the upper chamber and LBJ reshaped the Senate to bend his way, Reid has been more an agent of history than a driver. If he loses reelection on November 2nd, he will have left little of himself behind. That, says everyone who knows Reid well, is just fine by him, but if he returns, Reid will find himself leading a shriveled Democratic caucus with a president focused on his 2012 reelection. It will be Reid's Senate.
The first issue Reid will confront in the 112th will be an effort by members of his caucus to rewrite the Senate rules to make obstruction more difficult. While the focus has been eliminating or reducing the number needed to carry on a filibuster, Reid has also been looking at a variety of smaller changes that could speed up the Senate's pace and make filibustering a more public and difficult task.
Climate scientists say that the time left to flatten the rate of carbon emissions and begin to turn it around is preciously short. Without a change in Senate rules, doing so in the next decade will be impossible, even if cap and trade is discarded.
Nancy Pelosi, who is clinging to her Speaker's gavel in the final days of the election, said in an interview with HuffPost that the policy choice settled on years ago as the best way to reduce emissions and spur green energy development may need a second look -- at least until the votes are there for cap and trade in the Senate. "We have moved the issue and the debate and now we have to make a decision," Pelosi said. "And our members feel, I think -- I'm not speaking for the chairmen of the committees -- but I do think that our members generally are open to other suggestions about how, if it's not cap and trade, what is it? Is it a fee on carbon?"
Whatever it is, it can't get done under the current rules.
Reid gets little attention for his environmental record, but he is a conservationist at heart. To him, his green accomplishments are among his most important. Reid's connection to the earth is perhaps the least understood part of a man who escapes attempts to define him, but it could prove the key to understanding how he'll act as Senate majority leader if the electoral gods grant him an additional term.
Reid was twice the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. In his memoir, when he details his legislative accomplishments, the list is almost exclusively related to environmental preservation: the creation of Great Basin National Park and the Red Rock conservation area; the Negotiated Settlement, which preserved Stillwater Marsh and Pyramid Lake and sought to resolve a hundred year water war between Nevada and California; the ongoing Lake Tahoe Summit, which he founded.
And then there's Yucca Mountain. Reid says that he only called George W. Bush a liar twice and once was in response to Bush's flip-flop on Yucca Mountain. Reid has feverishly opposed the federal government's plan to store spent uranium and plutonium in the mountain redoubt, arguing that nearby fault lines and other ecological sensitivities, as well as the potential of aquifer contamination, make it an unsuitable site.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, a centrist Democrat who has a Louisianan's appreciation for dealmaking, said that there is only one issue that Reid has ever come to her and asked her to stand with him for no other reason than that he needed her. "The only time he's ever done that is over Yucca Mountain," she said. "He just protects Nevada on that issue like a mother tiger protecting cubs. ... I'm actually on the other side of that, but I vote with him sometimes." (At the start of his presidential run, in March 2007, Obama sent a letter to the Las Vegas Review Journal outlining his agreement with Reid. Early in his presidency, he killed the long-running project, much to Reid's satisfaction.)
Reid's green politics are personal. One of his more high profile local fights in Nevada was his controversial opposition to a coal-fired power plant outside Las Vegas. People who know Reid said his opposition flowed from grandfatherly instincts: He didn't want his grandkids poisoned by a coal plant. When he's not in his Ritz Carlton suite in Washington, D.C. -- which Angle has battered Reid relentlessly for, something Reid knew would happen when he decided to move in regardless -- he lives across town from the Searchlight Cemetery in a one-story, roughly 2,000 square foot home down a long sand-and-pebble drive -- it would be too generous to call the stuff dirt -- powered by the wind and the sun. Next to a bank of solar panels proudly stands a windmill that produces surplus electricity that is fed back to the grid. As it was being built this spring, the Tea Party scheduled a rally in his hometown, and Reid wanted nothing more to get that turbine up. "He wanted it up before the the Tea Party Express came through," Richard Hill, who does handiwork for Reid, told HuffPost. "We got it up the day before." When Hill finished, he texted Reid in Washington, one of the few times he's ever done so to let him know the windmill was up, and Reid immediately typed back his gratitude.
Reid's staff regularly puts together a list of the Senate's greatest accomplishments in the 111th Congress -- a tally that includes health care reform, a major credit card crackdown, Wall Street reform, and a pile of other bills related to everything from smoking to workplace discrimination. If a staffer ever leaves off the "lands bill" -- which protected 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states, much of it in the West -- Reid is sure to raise hell, in that soft way that Reid knows how to. It was left out of the speech he delivered at the bloggers convention in Las Vegas, Netroots Nation, but Reid added it in.
Yet combating climate change isn't on the list. The effort collapsed in a heap of recrimination and despair as the Senate stumbled out of Washington in early August.
When a new Congress returns to Washington in January, climate change will stand as the most prominent unfinished piece of the Democratic platform. The global community is ready to cooperate to drastically reduce carbon emissions before it's too late, from China to Africa to Europe to South America to the White House, the U.S. military, the House of Representatives (for now) and the Supreme Court (for now). The world is waiting on the Senate. And the longer it waits, the less likely it becomes that humanity can avoid the horrific consequences of global temperatures crossing the line that triggers feedback mechanisms that push the situation beyond our control.
To get it done, however, Reid will have to loosen what Nancy Pelosi calls the "60-vote stranglehold." Given the current obstacles, the Senate has barely been able to extend unemployment insurance with jobless rates at record levels. It won't even think about comprehensively addressing climate change in the 112th Congress, especially not with House Republicans -- a majority of whom may be flat-out climate change-deniers -- likely controlling the lower chamber.
But Reid is keenly aware that the 60-vote threshold makes addressing climate change effectively impossible in any future Congress. That puts Reid, the filibuster, and the future of the planet on a course that collides on January 3, 2011, the first day of the 112th Congress. And then again on the first day of the 113th. If climate change is, in fact, the existential threat to civilisation that scientists and military strategists warn that it is, that places Reid in a pivotal historical position -- if he likes it or not.
Reid, in fact, already has his eye on passing climate change legislation in the Senate with a simple majority, floating the idea of using the budget reconciliation process in a March 2009 meeting with Jim Rogers and Fred Krupp, the heads of Duke Energy and the Environmental Defense Fund respectively. "I used to think we had to do the energy bill first and then cap-and-trade, but I've decided we should do the energy bill, cap-and-trade, and the smart grid all at once as soon as we can," Reid said, according to Eric Pooley in the new book The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth. "I don't think we're going to get a strong bill unless we do this through budget reconciliation. I may try to get it done that way." Health care, though, elbowed climate off the floor.
Reid's environmentalism, rooted in a Western tradition of conservation, is of the old school type. And the green movement didn't help him evolve until recently. At the beginning of each congressional session, about two dozen representatives of the environmental community pitch Democratic leadership on their priorities. One year, according to Pooley, Reid was presented with a list of 26 high-priority green issues. "Which are important?" a bewildered Reid wondered to aides after the gathering.
In 2007, that changed. Each person in the room said they had one top priority, whether it was the river people, the ocean folks, or the wilderness protectors: climate change.
When future generations look back at the 111th Congress, what they're mostly likely to remember, as the tides and temperatures rise, is what wasn't done: This was the moment that the United States failed to take steps to stave off the coming climate change calamity. Historians will be left to wonder how a Senate leader with a lifetime record of fighting for conservation, and a preternatural ability to get things done, fell short.
"I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen. We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going."
That's Stephen Chu, Obama's Secretary of Energy, speaking in February of 2009, as related by Gwinn Dyer in Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats. Such an acknowledgment was a profound break from the Bush administration, which spent most of its two terms denying the science behind global warming. On his way out the door, Bush finally acknowledged the need to do something about the problem, but that window is closing fast. By the looks of the GOP candidates set to enter the House and Senate in January, a majority will reject the very idea that humanity has anything to do with rising temperatures, or that it should do anything about it, citing the true but irrelevant fact that temperatures have fluctuated in the past.
A small group of Republicans now losing their place in the party had little interest in addressing the issue, but did at least acknowledge it as a real one. The new Republican position is typified by Alaska's Joe Miller, who upset Lisa Murkowski in a GOP primary. Murkowski, while pressing to block the the EPA from regulating carbon emissions, made the case within her party that climate change was real and did need to be dealt with somehow. That's not much, but it's something. Miller, meanwhile, says outright that climate change "may not even exist." And this is from a man from Alaska, where ancient communities are currently being driven from the coasts by warming weather and rising sea levels.
Miller and his fellows are denying a century of science. Man-made climate change is not a concept that sprung up with Al Gore. "This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels," President Lyndon Johnson said back in 1965. Yet carbon emissions have grown steadily with little indication that humanity has the will to pull itself back from the brink.
The time left to stem the warming trend before it becomes irreversible is short. The 111th Congress' failure to address the issue led directly to the collapse of talks in Copenhagan, setting back diplomatic progress immeasurably that only a burst of legislative activity from the Senate can put back on track. The danger of a failure to slow emissions in the next few years is not that the planet will continue to warm gradually, but that temperatures will rise to the point where feedback mechanisms kick in and it will be too late to reduce emissions.
Chu isn't a lone voice in the administration. "We are seeing not only a rise in the surface temperature of the planet. We are seeing changes in circulation patterns, changes in storm tracks, increases in flood intensity and frequency, increases in drought intensity and frequency, more and stronger heat waves, more powerful tropical storms--right across the board, everything that is expected to result from global climate change driven by greenhouse gases in not only happening, but it's happening faster than anybody expected," judged John Holdren, Obama's adviser for science and technology, in an interview with Dyer.
Dyer forecasts the geopolitical consequences of unchecked rising emissions, focusing on reports put together by several different nations' military strategists. (Military leaders don't have the luxury of denying the science behind climate change, since it is their obligation to foresee and defend against threats to security, of which global warming is the most existential.)
Despite its awareness of the existential nature of the problem, the Obama administration showed little interest in pushing what it had called during the campaign its top priority. One Senate staffer who works on the issue noted that EPA head Carol Browner was given but three staffers to help write legislation that would reshape the world's largest economy.
The White House, meanwhile, after persuading House Democrats to take a climate change vote that will cost at least some of them their jobs, gave away everything that Senate Democrats had to bargain in order to get Republicans on board: nuclear subsidies, offshore drilling and EPA preemption. And they did so without consulting the lead Senate team negotiating the bill, made up of Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). The trio was left with little more to offer than Kerry's lectures about humanity's peril, talks that nearly made fellow senators pine for the time that Barbara Boxer was taking the lead. (Nearly.)
The White House dictated the Senate's floor schedule in the 110th Congress, with the stimulus followed by health care, followed by Wall Street reform, leaving no time for climate change or immigration. Obama's pursuit of that congressional unicorn, a bipartisan health care bill, cost the chamber precious time, as Max Baucus and his doomed Gang of Six dithered for months.
Climate change activists spent 2009 and 2010 in denial, hoping against hope that the issue would get the attention of the White House, the only way it could move through the Senate.
But that attention never came. Instead, the White House made health care its top priority. Reid was getting pressure from several different angles. Kent Conrad, the Budget Committee chairman, argued that reducing the long-term deficit should be the top priority. "I was in favor of doing stimulus combined with long-term deficit reduction, then to be followed by energy, reducing our dependence on foreign oil, then health care. Look, the president had a different idea and Senator Reid felt that the time was right to go forward with health care and that's how the decision was made," Conrad told HuffPost.
Was it the right decision?
"There's no sense, you know -- we all have our views," said Conrad.
As time grew short in 2010, Republican obstruction ramped up and Reid saw opportunity. He took financial regulatory reform to the floor, knowing it didn't have 60 votes, but daring Republicans to brave the headlines that would come from defending Wall Street. As cloture vote after cloture vote failed, Reid grew impatient and wanted to pull the bill off the floor and move on, said Chris Dodd, chairman of the Banking Committee. "There have been times when he's raised questions about whether or not we can actually go forward and I've had to convince him that I thought we could go ahead and get the bill, but it was right to ask the question," Dodd told HuffPost. "A couple of times on financial reform, when they thought maybe we just ought to go on to something else, when we had so many cloture votes on it, but I and others were able to convince him that no, that we thought we could win the issue and we ought to keep it up."
Democrats chewed up weeks of floor time on Wall Street reform; finishing health care had taken until late March. As the calendar flipped closer to August, Reid began conferring with his members pushing energy and climate bills. "Harry Reid's style is to let chairs be chairs. And there are times when that can be problematical," said Chris Dodd, laughing.
It's long been problematical with climate change. The various chairs made their case. Jeff Bingaman, chair of the energy committee, argued for his bipartisan bill that invested in clean energy -- as well as the dirty stuff -- but didn't put a price or a cap on carbon. John Kerry fought back, pushing for his own legislation. His colleagues tried to talk him down, stressing that it had nowhere near the 60 votes needed. Kerry, chair of foreign relations, responded, just as Boxer, chair of the environment committee, had the session before -- by lecturing and hectoring about the dangers of climate change. Bingaman had made the same push in the last Congress for an energy-only bill, but Reid sided with Boxer, whose bill went down in flames on the floor. This time, nobody would emerge the winner.
Week after week of meetings led nowhere. The final few days of July and August were taken up battling over extending unemployment insurance, tax cuts and a mismatched variety of bills targeted at certain constituencies. The Republican strategy of delaying little things to keep the Senate from doing big things was finally paying dividends.
As things dissolved in the Senate, little was heard from the massively well-funded political operation that had spent tens of millions of dollars to make climate-change legislation a reality. Ultimately, the operation was focused on the inside game, run by insiders uninterested in alienating people they'd need in their next gig. When the inside game faltered, there was no outside pressure to push forward.
Lindsey Graham, in what would be the final week of negotiations, was under tremendous pressure at home, with South Carolina Republicans accusing him of cooperating with Democrats in order to prevent them from outing him as gay. The out-of-bounds charge -- that he was being blackmailed, not that he was gay -- was seen as ludicrous in Washington, but Kerry told a colleague, according to a Democrat briefed on the conversation, that the homophobic attacks in South Carolina had driven Graham away.
Graham was still on board as of late Thursday that final week, scheduled to attend a press conference to unveil the bill. But following a meeting with McConnell, he let his partners know the relationship was ending.
"This immigration thing loomed large. It was inconsistent with being all-in on climate change. You can't do both," he told them.
Graham said he was still firmly committed right up until he wasn't. "I was doing a speech Friday in Charlotte about the guts of the bill," he said, adding that Reid's immigration announcement "convinced me that they were worried about -- they didn't want their members to take any more controversial votes. And it was upsetting at the time, but I think Harry made the equation that the votes weren't there for anything that could be called cap-and-tax, that he was very worried about putting some of his members at risk, who were less than enthusiastic about round two of climate change."
Reid stepped in and euthanized the bill. He had been mostly uninvolved throughout the year, checking in periodically while focusing on health care, Wall Street and simultaneously running the Senate and running for reelection. During a series of meetings in the summer and fall, Reid and other Democrats worked to persuade Kerry that the gig was up for the year, that the votes and the time weren't there. Kerry wouldn't yield and Reid wound up driving the final stake through the corpse of the bill at a campaign stop in Nevada in April, when he told the crowd that the Senate would take up comprehensive immigration reform before it got to climate change. By then, even the guards in the Capitol knew that neither was getting done before lawmakers checked out to go campaigning, but it gave Graham an out he readily jumped at.
When HuffPost spoke to Graham at the end of September, the Senate was preparing to vote on the defense authorization bill before heading out of town. It included a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and Reid attached an amendment that would allow for a vote on the DREAM Act, a longtime priority of the Latino and immigrant community, which would give undocumented folks a path to citizenship for attending college or enlisting in the military. (The latter quality had earned the military's endorsement.) "It was just what I thought it'd be: It was all politics," said Graham of Reid's move to prioritize immigration before climate. "We're doing an immigration bill now which is a joke."
As the Senate stumbled toward the exit, Reid began turning the transactional dials furiously, promising votes on everything from food safety to campaign finance reform, while refusing to publicly foreclose addressing anything. Reid, the master of the inside game, had little sense of how to manage the powerful forces outside. With corporate money burying Democrats, the party's allies were clamoring all the while for a vote on the Senate floor on the DISCLOSE
Act as something to rally around. But Reid missed the value of such an event and, thinking in purely insider terms, agreed to allow one on such short notice that groups such as MoveOn, which had made corporate money a centerpiece of their message, had little time to spring into action. Coverage of it was buried underneath a slew of reports about Democrats punting on a vote on extending Bush's tax cuts. The GOP filibustered the DISCLOSE Act and it never came to a final vote.
Reid doesn't get the outside game. His political career, in fact, was salvaged by an appointment to boxing commissioner by his mentor after Reid lost his first Senate bid in the Watergate wave year, following it up with a failed bid for Las Vegas mayor. Losing as a Democrat in 1974 took a special amount of incompetence, which Reid displayed in full, and an inability to see the broader political force at work. His opponent, who Reid later befriended, told him that if Reid had left the state instead of campaigning, the seat would've been his.
Climate change, the DREAM Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell wouldn't get a vote, either. The GOP filibustered the defense bill, an extension of the party's strategy the last two years. But it did get Reid a little help in Nevada. "I encouraged him to do that," Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) told HuffPost about the DREAM Act. Returning the favor, Gutierrez traveled to Nevada to whip up Latino support for Reid. He said that Reid's camp told him to come October 15th through 17th, the start of early voting.
Progressives have watched in bemusement the past year and half as Reid, reviled as the spineless embodiment of Democratic weakness, has emerged as a liberal champion in opposition to the White House. Reid and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel were in constant communication, routinely talking as many as a dozen times a day, and the relationship was one of the most important in Washington. The two couldn't be further apart by temperament or background, but both share a passion for accomplishment, for getting things done. Emanuel's legendary aggressiveness, however, is devoted purely to political gain, regardless of how much his allies try to portray him as a closeted policy wonk.
Emanuel was a chief obstacle to climate change legislation, not wanting Obama to get caught in the political thicket without first putting some "points on the board" -- his favorite phrase. In late spring 2009, when leaders of USCAP -- a coalition of corporations and environmental groups pushing for climate action -- visited the White House, Emanuel told them to be patient. "We want to do this climate bill, but success breeds success," he said. "We need to put points on the board. We only want to do things that are going to be successful."
Emanuel's been pushing the points-on-the-board theory of politics for more than a decade. As health care began to implode on President Clinton, Emanuel urged him to push for school uniforms instead -- a vacuous policy that couldn't be any better a metaphor for Emanuel's superficial, put-a-new-coat-of-paint-on-it approach. The 110th Congress, if nothing else, has dramatically discredited the theory: If there was a scoreboard, Democrats would be winning in a blowout, celebrating on the sidelines as the clock wound down toward November. But, of course, there is no scoreboard to put points on.
In the closing days before the health care reform vote, the party's liberals and conservatives negotiated their way out of the public-option impasse, with ten senators huddling for hours across the hall from Reid's office. The deal that was struck would drop the public option but replace it with the opportunity for Americans 55 and over to buy into Medicare -- the type of thing Democrats could be running hard on this election season. But Joe Lieberman balked and rather than reach out to Lieberman, the White House sent Emanuel to Reid's office to persuade him to cave to the Connecticut independent.
HuffPost asked Reid about that meeting with Emanuel. "I think when people write about health care it's hard to write what really happened, because what really happened was not an evenly flowing river. What we had was something like -- I floated the Colorado once through the Grand Canyon, and that's what health care was kind of like. 'Oh, it's so nice," and then BANG you hit those rapids and it throws you up in the air and 'Oh man, I'm glad I'm alive.' That's kind of health care. So that was just a minor bump. We had a lot of bumps."
The biggest bump came when Scott Brown won a special election for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat and robbed Reid's filibuster-proof majority. The only way to finish health care was to use the budget reconciliation process, which requires a simple majority. Without the need for 60 votes, a renewed push came to include the public option or the Medicare buy in. "The answer is of course we thought about that, but understand we were limited in what we could do under reconciliation. The rules of reconciliation are very strict and one reason we were able to get this done is we spent days with parliamentarians, with experts in the Senate, experts in the House. We wanted to make sure that when we did this it complied with the very complicated rules of the Senate. And that's why we didn't try to take advantage of reconciliation. Of course the thoughts entered my mind. We had other things we wanted to do," said Reid. "We didn't push the envelope."
Lucia Graves contributed reporting
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