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Harry Reid doesn’t pull punches in wide-ranging interview

Updated February 9, 2019 - 5:36 pm

During his 30 years in the Senate, former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid was revered by Democrats and reviled by Republicans.

The 79-year-old Reid, a former amateur lightweight boxer, remains pugilistic and doesn’t pull any punches when asked about the current situation in Washington.

Reid said Republican pushback from the longest government shutdown in U.S. history will force President Donald Trump to accept a bipartisan agreement or declare a national emergency to fund a border wall.

Reid also said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., should have moved earlier to end the 35-day partial government closure that cost the country more than $3 billion.

Despite earlier approval, McConnell refused to put a bill on the Senate floor for a vote after Trump waged a protest and closed the government because stopgap legislation did not include $5.7 billion for construction of a border wall he had once claimed Mexico would finance.

“He should have moved forward on it,” Reid said of McConnell. “It was his bill.”

The comments came during a wide-ranging interview from his executive office in the Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip.

Reid told the Review-Journal that Trump has damaged the Republican brand, prompting a GOP backlash, claims the Nevada caucus is pivotal in selecting the next Democratic presidential nominee and that opposition to Yucca Mountain development will be a litmus test for candidates.

“Absolutely,” Reid declared.

The former lawmaker, who held the titles of Senate majority and minority leader as head of the Democratic caucus during that era, also spoke fondly of his associations with former President Barack Obama, current and former state officials, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Bryce Harper, the free agent Major League Baseball slugger.

While in the Senate, Reid locked horns with McConnell, who once claimed Reid had a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality. He called former President George W. Bush a liar, and falsely accused 2012 GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney of not paying taxes.

In 2017, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told Politico that he blamed Reid for “poisoning the atmosphere” in the Senate.

Reid said he was fortunate to be a leader and always tried to do the best for his Democratic caucus. And he noted the GOP opposition to Obama and his agenda during his first term when Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act, and Reid changed Senate filibuster rules to fill judicial vacancies.

“Certainly, I was far from perfect,” he admitted, “but I think we did a pretty good job.”

Since then, McConnell again has changed filibuster rules, allowing Republicans to seat two Supreme Court justices.

“They had the right to change the rules just as I did,” Reid said, but he said GOP opposition that blocked the Obama nomination of Appellate Judge Merrick Garland for a Supreme Court vacancy for nearly a year was wrong.

“That has nothing to do with rule changes,” Reid said. That had to do with partisanship “and in a very bad way.”

What Reid now fears is that the system becomes so dysfunctional that government shutdowns become commonplace as a tool for legislating. There were three shutdowns last year alone, including one prompted by Democrats over deportation protection for childhood immigrants.

A bicameral, bipartisan committee has until Friday to craft legislation on border security that Trump, Senate Republicans and House Democrats will accept in order to avoid another shutdown.

“I’m afraid that Trump is going to declare a national emergency for his wall and that will be tied up in the courts,” Reid said.

That move would allow Trump to satisfy his conservative critics, like commentators Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter, Reid said. Those critics prompted Trump to shut down the government in December, a stalemate that lasted through January.

As for another shutdown, Reid said, “I don’t believe the Republicans would allow him to do it again. He has hurt the Republican brand.”

McConnell, Reid said, should have ended the shutdown earlier with a continuing resolution to fund the government while negotiations continued, defying the president who threatened a veto.

“It’s pretty hard to be someone who is the prime mover of the legislation, especially when you are the leader, and you decide not to have a vote on it,” Reid said. “That’s pretty hard to sell.”

McConnell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The White House has repeatedly declined to respond to Reid comments critical of the president.

Reid said the Constitution establishes three separate and equal branches of government. “The Senate does not work for the president. It works with the president.”

“You disagree on occasion, which I did, with the White House. I tried my best to make the Democrat in the White House to look as best as possible and I tried not to humiliate the Republican who was in the White House, but I repeat, the Senate does not work for the president, you work with the president,” Reid said.

Cancer diagnosis

The former Nevada senator retired from the Senate in 2017 and was diagnosed last year with pancreatic cancer. He lives with wife, Landra, in Henderson, but maintains an office at the Bellagio in Las Vegas where he attends to affairs.

On the wall is a picture of Pyramid Lake, the largest in Nevada, a framed license plate, Nev 2, from when he was lieutenant governor 49 years ago, and a signed letter from Donald Trump dated Nov. 8, 2010: “Dear Harry, Congratulations — you are amazing.”

The letter, written eight years ago, prompts a chortle from Reid who remained seated during a one-hour interview in his office, with a wheelchair nearby.

Reid’s Senate career ended following an accident with an exercise machine in 2015, which he claimed malfunctioned, and left him blind in his right eye. Reid did not seek re-election in 2016, ending a 30-year career in the Senate.

Reid said he was “really doing well, cancer-wise,” but has trouble with mobility and depth perception. He said he hasn’t been “behind the wheel” of a vehicle in 25 years.

“You are lucky I’m not driving,” he said.

Grateful Dead concerts

Since leaving the Senate, Reid said he stays busy with podcasts, 19 grandchildren and keeps up with current events, sports and music.

A satellite radio program recently mentioned Grateful Dead concerts in the nation’s capital, and the celebrities and politicians who showed up backstage for these raucous events in 1990s. One of the politico sightings was Reid.

Reid glowingly said he collected the signature of the late guitarist Jerry Garcia, and remains in contact with drummer Mickey Hart, who appeared in the House gallery last month as a guest of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for the swearing in of the 116th Congress.

Reid said he struck up a friendship with Hart following a Senate committee hearing where he was called to testify decades ago.

“I still keep in touch with Mickey Hart, the drummer,” Reid said. “He’s hard to talk to because he is so deaf because of his rock and roll stuff.”

2020 Nevada caucus

As all political eyes turn toward the 2020 presidential race, where Trump is raising millions to fend off a primary battle and run for re-election, Democrats seeking their party’s nomination are reaching out to Reid, still considered a political godfather in Nevada and head of a machine that has proved itself in the past two cycles.

It was Reid who lobbied for and engineered the move in 2008 to put Nevada behind Iowa and New Hampshire, along with South Carolina, as one of the first presidential primary and caucus states.

Reid said he didn’t do it for a candidate, or the Democratic Party.

“Back then we were really small. I thought it would be good for the state,” he said. “It has been tremendous for the state.”

Several Democratic candidates and potential hopefuls have reached out to Reid: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, former Vice President Joe Biden, who is a friend, and most recently Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who called him last week.

The large and growing field of candidates is “good and healthy,” he said, adding that he’s not planning to endorse but will advise those seeking the nomination.

Reid said he is telling candidates they “don’t have to campaign on how bad Trump is, everybody knows that.”

“Even Republicans know he has a few faults,” Reid said.

The discussion, he said, should center on the delivery of health care and the skyrocketing costs of higher education that are financially crippling students.

Reid said the argument that Democrats are veering far to the left is overstated, and he noted that the recent House takeover under Pelosi includes a number of moderates who picked off Republican seats.

He said there is nothing outrageous about “dynamic new politicians talking about doing things that have not been done before.” However, he said he’s recently warned Democrats about the sabre-rattling on impeachment.

All politics is local

Reid refused to wade into the scandals swirling around the Virginia statehouse involving Gov. Ralph Northam, whose college yearbook showed a picture of a man dressed in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

“It would be somewhat piling on,” Reid said of the numerous calls for Northam to step down. “He’s going to have to decide that personally.”

Reid also said it was “up to the people of Virginia to say.”

He also brushed aside a Trump claim this past week that former Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, lost to Democrat Jackie Rosen because he had been disloyal and mean to the president.

Reid helped clear the path for Rosen to run for the U.S. House in 2016, which led to her successful 2018 Senate election on a blue wave that sent a historic number of women to Congress.

“She is a natural. People just like her,” Reid said of Rosen. “I think she won because of her soft-sell, terrific presentation.”

Reid also said he has talked with Heller, a “good guy,” and his wife, Lynne, since the election.

Trump’s take on the race is just more “falsehoods and exaggerations” by the president, Reid said.

“Maybe I should be gloating that he has damaged the Republican Party, but I don’t think that it’s good for the country,” Reid said.

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7390. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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