Senate Majority Leader Hillary Clinton

The National Journal reflects on Harry Reid's future as the Senate's top dog.

Published October 7, 2008 5:10PM (EDT)

The National Journal's Kirk Victor speculates about Sen. Harry Reid's future as majority leader in the next Congress.

There is no question about whether Democrats will be gaining Senate seats in next month's election; the only question is how many. Presuming Mary Landrieu holds on in Louisiana, it will be no fewer than five seats and maybe as high as eight or even nine if Republicans fall in places like Alaska, Minnesota and North Carolina.

The only question, says Victor, is whether Reid will still be leader:

... Reid earned chits with his troops because as their whip for six years -- and minority leader for two -- he tirelessly fought on the floor for the Democratic agenda. He is well liked by the sometimes fractious, ideologically diverse 48 other Democrats and two independents who caucus with them.

But Reid's tendency to pop off and his hyperpartisanship can be liabilities. Even as the Senate on October 1 easily passed sweeping legislation to rescue the financial markets, Reid has been less than nimble throughout the process. In fairness, the two House leaders -- Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio -- had problems within their own caucuses, as 95 Democrats and 133 Republicans rebuffed their pleas and defeated the bill on September 29.

Still, when a new administration takes office next year, along with a likely Democratic-controlled Congress, the Senate will be the center of action. Reid is a tenacious fighter, but different skills may be needed in his chamber, where reaching across the aisle is required to prevent a determined minority from wreaking havoc. In the House, by contrast, the rules give Pelosi the power to steamroll the minority.

"Harry Reid," a Democratic strategist said, "is a team player, services his members well, and knows the institution." But, the strategist added, a Senate leader must be "someone who inspires confidence, who can advance an agenda and a message, and who can both contribute to and execute a strategy. That is just not Harry Reid's strong suit."

Noticeably absent from Victor's article is any mention of Hillary Clinton, whose name has often been mentioned for the post, and who, in my opinion, would make a superb majority leader.

If that "new administration" is an Obama administration, Obama's White House will of course take a special interest in who leads the Senate. And I wonder how Obama would feel about having Clinton as majority leader.

On one hand, if there is any residual bitterness between Obama and Clinton, it would be problematic for Obama if Clinton had so much influence over the fate of his legislative agenda. On the other hand, supporting her ascendancy could do a lot to heal those residual wounds. If Obama wins, and presuming he wants to shake things up, he could move behind the scenes to make her ascendancy possible.

"We have to stop being polite and sensitive to people's feelings and make some hard choices and say, 'New administration, new direction, we need some new leadership,'" said Dan Gerstein, a former veteran Senate Democratic staffer. "[Obama] will be in a much stronger position to change the culture and politics in Washington and on the Hill if he has lieutenants who can carry that message effectively ... You can't bring in new politics with the old guard."

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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