To Forward Progressive Agenda, Harry Reid Says The Filibuster Must Go

Aug 25, 2019

At 79, Harry Reid may be retired, living in a gated community in Henderson in his home state of Nevada, but his national political shadow looms large.

He spent 34 years in Congress before retiring his position of Senate minority leader in 2017. He built a machine for the Democrats in Nevada that ultimately delivered the battleground state to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and the Democrats in the 2018 midterms. He had a reputation for being a tough politician who did what was necessary to get what he thought needed to be done, done. Even if sometimes that meant calling his opponents names, changing rules or, pushing the narrative that Mitt Romney didn't pay taxes without furnishing any evidence to back up the claim.

Today, Reid is still battling cancer. He's in chemotherapy but he says the prognosis is good. He's less mobile then he used to be and had to quit doing yoga with his wife. He spends a lot of time reading. But even in retirement he's still involved in politics, sharing ideas, he says, to colleagues in Washington and speaking to front-runners in the Democratic primary.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Reid spoke with NPR about taking President Trump's potential reelection seriously, the urgency of climate change and getting rid of the filibuster entirely — the Senate threshold of 60 senators to advance a bill.


Interview Highlights

You want to get rid of the filibuster entirely in the Senate. Does this set a dangerous precedent?

If you look at where the filibuster came from, we didn't have one until 1917 and it was developed to cut off debate because it could go on forever. What has happened now is the filibuster has been used as a weapon to just have the Senate do nothing.

It used to be that the Senate worked quite well. The filibuster was there, but it was used on a basis of collegiality. It wasn't used very often. When something was extremely important to a member, they would exercise their rights, but it didn't bring the Senate to a standstill forever. Right now, the 60-vote threshold is what everything is now. Everything is 60 votes, everything.

In 2013, you got rid of the filibuster for most executive appointees in a gridlocked Congress that was holding up judicial and other executive appointees under the Obama administration. It was seen as the "nuclear option." Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell then took it further and got rid of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in 2017.

So, I moved to change the rules, as a result of that, Obama got his hundred-plus judges and his Cabinet spots filled. ... It was the right thing to do. Now, that wasn't the first time the rules have been changed, they've changed lots of times in the past. But I think that now, with the Senate being basically inoperable because Republicans in Congress after Congress have just refused to get anything done. People are not able to offer amendments. It's just not good for the country. I think we need to take a very close look at getting rid of the filibuster, period.

Doesn't that create a situation where one party gets to railroad the other party depending on who is in charge of that upper chamber?

But at least it would be done with the majority. The way it is now, one party railroads; the other one, you get nothing done. At least that way you can get something done. Great if you're in majority. It's not so good if you're a minority, but the way it is now, it doesn't matter if you're in the majority or minority — you don't get anything done. ...

It's important, because let's take some major issues the country faces. No issue in my mind is more important than climate change. It is devastating our world. The United States must be a leader in this. But with Trump and basically Republicans saying that climate change doesn't exist, we're getting nothing done, I mean nothing, we don't have a lot of time to spare. Take something like guns. Now, it doesn't matter how you feel about the Second Amendment, the fact is 90 percent of the American people believe there should be background checks for people that are crazy or criminals, but we can't get it done in the Senate. The filibuster should go so we can get something done on guns.

How difficult do you think this race against President Trump is going to be?

I think that anyone who thinks it's going to be a walk in the park are wrong. No one should discount Donald Trump. He's spent a lifetime developing who he is. And I wish he were somebody else, but he's somebody that has been able to focus on race. He focuses on the environment, but the wrong way. He focuses on the economy, I think in the wrong way. These tariffs are not only hurting America, they're hurting the world. So I think that his simplistic views on the world translate to people not wanting to focus real hard on what needs to be done to help this country. So don't discount him. He's going to be hard to beat.

On his former Republican colleagues

I'm really, frankly, disappointed in some of them, names which I won't mention, who've become such lapdogs for President Trump. That's so unlike what I thought they would be.

I really strongly believe an admonition I got when I first came to the Senate, from Sen. Robert Byrd, who said, "Always remember we do not work for the president, we work with the president." I think some of my colleagues have forgotten that they work with the president. They're working for him.

On whether he misses Capitol Hill

No. I believe in the Old Testament admonition that there's a time for everything. A time for planting, a time for reaping. I just think that that was my time. I enjoyed every minute of my 30 years in the Senate and my four years in the House. But that was my time and now is not my time.

You had such a long, storied political career. When you look back is there anything that you regret?

Oh, sure. I sure do. The biggest regret I have is having voted for the Iraq War. I was misled. ... But I learned quickly that I made a bad decision. So I spent a lot of my career, after a couple weeks, criticizing the war — the worst foreign policy mistake this country ever made. It's destabilized the Middle East. We may have had some autocratic governments there but at least they were stable. We destabilized the whole area leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The migration of millions of people. ...

The rest of the stuff, I've kind of come to the conclusion a long time ago that there's no need to rehash what I did. I did it.

When you look at the future of this nation what worries you the most?

Well, I have a number of concerns. I have to be concerned about climate change. We're here in the deserts of Nevada as we speak, but we have storms here we never had before. We have wildfires we never had before. And they're coming more often. The fire season is now 40 days longer than it was just 10 years ago. So climate change for Nevada, our country and the rest of world is something we have to dial up. It's really, really important. We don't have a lot of time to deal with it before it's too late.

I believe that this may sound unusual coming from me, having served in Congress for 34 years, but I'll tell you right now I think the debt this country is incurring is very, very unhealthy. We should start talking about that. Where are my Republican colleagues? When I went to Congress, and for many years thereafter, that's what they talked about, the debt. I never hear a peep out of them now. Trump is running this country into such grossly unfair debt that it's going to be generations to get out of that. I think that the immigration situation is something that we cannot ignore. We've got to do something about it and we've just passed the buck for far too long. Building a wall is not going to make it any better.

NPR's Ian Stewart and Evie Stone produced and edited this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The filibuster - it might sound like just a piece of Washington jargon, but that procedural rule has become a flashpoint on Capitol Hill and now in the Democratic primary, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We have to do what I'm saying we need to do, which is to get rid of the filibuster.

ELIZABETH WARREN: It's been used by the far right as a tool to block progress on everything.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And given the challenges that we face, I think we have to be open to ending the filibuster.

FADEL: It may be controversial today, but the filibuster was meant as a tool for bipartisan buy-in in the Senate. It requires a supermajority, 60 rather than 51 senators to advance a bill. This past week, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell defended the filibuster for legislation in the pages of The New York Times, calling it a crucial bulwark against majority overreach. But the fight over the filibuster began years ago with his predecessor, a Democrat.

Nice to see you.

HARRY REID: Thank you very much.

FADEL: Thank you for having us.

That's former Senator and Majority Leader Harry Reid speaking to me in his home in a gated community in Henderson, Nev. Reid may be retired, but his political shadow looms large after 34 years in Congress in which he was as formidable a political force as Mitch McConnell. And he's a leading voice in the effort to end the filibuster entirely, an argument he also laid out in an op-ed in The New York Times.

REID: The filibuster has been used as a weapon to just have the Senate do nothing.

FADEL: Reid changed the rules in 2013 when Congress was plagued with political gridlock and Republicans were blocking President Obama's executive appointees. It was called the nuclear option.

REID: As a result of that, Obama got his hundred-plus judges, got his Cabinet spots filled. It was the right thing to do. Now that wasn't the first time the rules had been changed. They'd been changed lots of times in the past, but I think that now with the Senate being basically inoperable - because the Republicans, Congress after Congress, have just refused to get anything done. So it's just not good for the country. I think that we need to take a very close look at getting rid of the filibuster period.

FADEL: But doesn't that create a situation where one party gets to railroad the other party depending on who is in charge of that upper chamber?

REID: Well - but at least it would be done with a majority. The way it is now, it doesn't matter if you're in majority or minority. It don't get anything done.

FADEL: And why is it so important right now? You also talked about it being important for whoever runs for president to also call for it.

REID: Yeah. I think it's important because - let's take some major issues the country faces. No issue in my mind is more important than climate change. The United States must be a leader in this. But with Trump and basically Republicans saying that climate change doesn't exist, we're getting nothing done. I mean nothing. We don't have a lot of time to spare.

FADEL: You actually got some criticism when you removed the filibuster for judicial confirmation. And then Mitch McConnell took that further and did that for Supreme Court judges. And now this move, I just wonder if it creates a dangerous - at least the critics will say it's a dangerous precedent.

REID: Well, I, in hindsight, don't understand why I waited so long to change the rule. What the Republicans have been doing for a long time was wrong and bad for the country.

FADEL: Does the Senate then just become another House? Does the upper chamber become the lower chamber?

REID: I've said it's not a question if it's only a question of when the House and the Senate become majority bodies, 50% votes. But that's not the end of the world. Remember, we have six-year terms in the Senate, two-year terms in the House. We have a bicameral legislature. It would still work just fine. We are a democracy. Let's act like one.

FADEL: Of course, Democrats can only abolish the filibuster for legislation if they take control of the Senate from Republicans in 2020. Reid has had many conversations about the state of the democracy in this very room. He's 79 and grappling with cancer, but he still wields political might. On the same couch where I sit, some of the leading Democratic presidential candidates have sought his advice - Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden. I asked him if he keeps in touch with Republican colleagues, too.

Do you reach out to any of the people you once worked with in Washington? Is there anybody?

REID: I still keep in touch with some of them. I really strongly believe the admonition I got when I first came to the Senate from Senator Robert Byrd, who said always remember we do not work for the president. We work with the president. And I think some of my colleagues have forgotten that they work with the president. They're working for him.

FADEL: Do you ever miss being in Washington, especially at this vital time?

REID: No. I believe in the Old Testament admonition that there's a time for everything, time for planting, a time for reaping. I just think that that was my time, and now is not my time.

FADEL: Do you ever call, though, and say, maybe a different approach?

REID: Well, I give my friends ideas. I saw a good one today. Senator Schumer had come out calling for restrictions on people being able to buy body armor. That was an idea I gave him. I've got a lot of ideas, so...

FADEL: How difficult do you think this race against President Trump is going to be?

REID: No one should discount Donald Trump. He has spent a lifetime developing who he is. And I wish he were somebody else, but he's somebody that has been able to focus on race. He focuses on the environment but the wrong way. He focused on the economy I think in the wrong way. These tariffs are not only hurting America. They're hurting in the world. I think that his simplistic views on the world translate to people not wanting to focus real hard on what needs to be done to help this country. So don't discount him. He's going to be hard to beat.

FADEL: But Reid says he's not concerned about America's future.

REID: If we've been able to withstand going on three years of Trump and still be here, we're - country's pretty strong. Our Constitution really does mean something. I'm convinced it's important we have three separate and equal branches of government. And I think all of us need to work to make sure each of those remains strong.

FADEL: And you see them as strong right now.

REID: Yeah. I think we're doing just fine.

FADEL: That was former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at his home in Henderson, Nev. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.