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Harry Reid: The Senate Institutionalist Who Burned Down The Institution

The retiring Nevada senator and minority leader wielded incredible influence over the last decade — and helped tear up the rules.

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WASHINGTON — It was well past midnight on Election Night 2004 when my phone rang. Posted up in a corner of the watch-party-turned-political-wake for Minority Leader Tom Daschle, I walked out to take the call.

"You'll never believe what Dodd is doing," said the Democrat on the other side, before claiming that Sen. Chris Dodd was already making calls to colleagues to lobby them for the job of Minority Leader. Daschle's political career wasn't even cold yet and members were finding the calls tasteless, said the operative — who was tied, indirectly, to Harry Reid.

And so a whisper campaign was born. Reporters in South Dakota, Nevada, and Washington, D.C., began working their phones, pestering members and top staff for details on what, exactly, Dodd was up to with these calls.

By the next day, Dodd had been smoked out of the nascent campaign, and the other Senate reporters and I were covering the quick demise of Chris Dodd, Minority Leader, and the clear ascendancy of Reid to the party's top job in the Senate. After nearly losing his seat six years before, Reid had become extremely risk adverse, and he and his cadre of close-knit advisors were leaving nothing to chance. It was still classic Harry Reid, bringing to bear a combination of bare-knuckle politics and a deep, instinctual understanding of the Senate's quirks to get what he wanted.

For the bulk of his career, Reid has used that sort of combination — decades spent on personal relationships, legislative favors for even the most difficult members of conference, and keeping the earmarks flowing — to build the kind of power base that most politicians only dream about.

But over the last 12 years, Reid has increasingly leaned on his pugnacious side as he picked often personally bitter fights with Republicans. And as Reid became increasingly consumed with fighting first President George W. Bush, then Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and then Mitt Romney, his conference — and the Senate — followed suit.

At the behest of the White House, Reid used his political muscle to force through Obamacare with virtually no Republican support, eschewing the time honored traditions of the chamber.

Following the 2010 rise of the Tea Party, legislating essentially came to an end in the Senate, which held fewer and fewer votes as partisan warfare took hold. Then, Reid spent most of 2012 using the Senate as a platform to wage war against Romney and any Republican who happened to be in his way.

And, again, the chamber followed suit. Aside from a bipartisan immigration bill that died in the House, the Senate essentially ground to a halt. Days, weeks would go by between procedural votes as Republicans filibustered virtually anything Reid put on the floor.

True, Reid had plenty of help from Republicans. Immediately following President Obama's election, McConnell and other top Republicans vowed to blockade anything the new president sought to pass. And when Republicans retook the House in 2010, conservatives insisted on a brand of confrontational politics that essentially precluded the notion of compromise.

But Reid's role in transforming the Senate into a partisan Thunderdome is all the more remarkable because of his past devotion to the institution's rules and social mores. Last year, the same man who railed against former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist for considering changing the filibuster rules and who bitterly criticized Bush's use of signing statements and executive orders, suddenly championed not only the end of filibusters for most nominations but President Obama's use of executive power in the absence of congressional action.

And that's how it will likely end, too. Reid made clear in his Friday announcement that he isn't going to leave the chamber quietly or is planning on changing his combative ways.

"My friend, Sen. McConnell, don't be too elated. I'm going to be here for 22 months, and you know what I'm going to be doing?" Reid warned. "The same thing I've been doing since I first came to the Senate."

John Stanton is a senior national correspondent for BuzzFeed News. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.

Contact John Stanton at john.stanton@buzzfeed.com.

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