Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) just set off a new high-stakes battle in the backrooms and corridors of Washington, D.C.
Reid has led the Senate Democrats since 2005, but the wily legislative tactician announced on Friday that he will not run for reelection in 2016.
He’s leaving a huge power vacuum behind him.
The initial front-runner in the Democratic leadership race appears to be Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York), a veteran Brooklyn lawmaker who currently leads the Senate Democrats’ messaging operation.
A “top Democrat” told CNN that Schumer “intends to start making calls later Friday morning to some of his fellow Democratic senators, trying to begin the process of succeeding Reid.” Schumer issued a statement shortly after the news broke wherein he praised Reid.
“Harry is one of the best human beings I’ve ever met. His character and fundamental decency are at the core of why he’s been such a successful and beloved leader. He’s so respected by our caucus for his strength, his legislative acumen, his honesty and his determination,” Schumer said. “He has left a major mark on this body, this country, and on so many who have met him, gotten to know him, and love him.”
Schumer may not face a clear path to the leadership post. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), the Senate Democrats’ whip and the party’s No. 2 leader in the chamber, is also thought to be potentially interested. A Durbin source told CNN that “it’s too soon to rule him out of the fight.”
Other contenders could still emerge. Shortly after Reid announced that he won’t run for reelection, liberal groups floated populist Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) for the position. Warren would be an unlikely choice: She was first elected in 2012 and leadership races often hinge on Washington relationships built up over decades.
The offices of Durbin and Warren did not immediately return requests for comment from Business Insider on Friday.
The significance of the race is hard to understate. Even as a minority leader, Reid was able to effectively stymie Republican efforts by keeping his entire conference unified on obscure procedural matters. He managed to do this even when more conservative Democratic senators at least partially agreed with the GOP on the issue at hand.
Reid’s ability to frustrate Republican plans was perhaps most clearly displayed earlier this year when GOP lawmakers backed a Department of Homeland Security funding bill that undermined President Barack Obama’s executive action shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) repeatedly pushed hard for their version of the legislation, which easily sailed through the House. However, because of the Senate filibuster rules, the Democratic minority would not let McConnell even bring the House bill up for discussion in the upper chamber.
McConnell and Boehner had promised and end to government shutdown crises, but with Reid undermining their strategy, the Department of Homeland Security was on the brink of a partial shutdown. They ultimately caved and passed the bill Reid wanted.
It’s not only a mastery of Senate rules that points to the importance of the party’s legislative leader, but also their priorities. For example, Reid told The New York Times on Friday that one of his crowning achievements was getting President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform bill passed in 2010.
The healthcare bill is one area that seems to show how Schumer’s approach would be different from Reid’s. Schumer has made comments indicated he thinks Democrats’ focus on Obamacare was a mistake.
In a speech after the Republican landslide in the 2014 midterm elections, Schumer argued that Democrats should have focused on bread-and-butter economic issues. He noted that the middle class makes up far more of the electorate than the uninsured.
“The Affordable Care Act was aimed at the 36 million Americans who were uncovered. It has been reported that only a third of the uninsured are even registered to vote. In 2010, only about 40 per cent of those registered voted, so even if the uninsured kept with that rate (which they likely did not) you would still only be talking about 5 per cent of the electorate,” he said at the time, according to The Washington Post.
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