It's easy to understand why people underestimate Harry Reid. He doesn't leave much of an impression, and in all the hoopla over the ascension of Nancy Pelosi on the other side of the Capitol, the new Senate majority leader has been pretty much invisible. When Reid began mumbling something in the chamber a few minutes after the new Senate was sworn in, his colleagues were too caught up in their own conversations to notice that he was giving his inaugural address. "Please," presiding Senator Frank Lautenberg implored, tapping the gavel, "the majority leader is speaking."
As Reid started his second week on the job, I asked him how things were going, especially with George W. Bush, someone else who has all but ignored him. That's when I saw the reflexes Reid developed 50 years ago, when he was going rounds in Las Vegas as a Golden Gloves middleweight. "I want to get along ..." he began, but he suddenly seemed at a loss for words. He slumped in his chair, buried his fist in his cheek and tapped his foot for a few awkward seconds. Then Reid let one fly: "He has 24 months left in his presidency. I don't think I'm being mean-spirited by saying [that in] the first six years of his presidency, there's been nothing accomplished except the biggest foreign policy fiasco in the history of our country."
Oof. A jab is the most important punch to learn in boxing--not because it delivers a knockout but for the damage it does in a long bout. The Nevada Senator has also called the President a liar, a loser and "King George." But with the slimmest possible majority (51 to 49) in a chamber where he needs at least nine Republicans to get anything difficult done--60 votes being what it takes to get past a filibuster and 67 to override a veto--the real test of Reid's leadership will be more about finesse. Republicans say they believe Reid when he says he wants to work with them, and in an initial show of good faith, he and minority leader Mitch McConnell co-sponsored the ethics and lobbying-reform legislation that is the Senate's first order of business. "I'm very fond of him personally," McConnell says. "I think he wants to get solutions to problems, and so do I." Reid even believes a bipartisan position is possible on Iraq.
In the eight years that Reid has spent in a leadership role--the first six as Democratic whip and then as minority leader--he has developed what his fellow Senators say is an extraordinary feel for the institution, with its subtle rhythms and treacherous undercurrents, its fragile egos and bitter rivalries. Says former Democratic leader Tom Daschle: "He had antennae that were as sensitive as any I'd ever seen."
That helped Reid maintain unusual cohesiveness when his caucus was in the minority. By constantly staying on top of their individual needs and priorities--he reserves a breast pocket of his jacket for note cards on which he records favors asked and promises made--Reid managed with sheer vigilance and persuasion to keep spotlight-loving Senators like Illinois' Dick Durbin and New York's Chuck Schumer in harness, and unpredictable spirits like Montana's Max Baucus from straying over the fence.