As Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid has been President Barack Obama's key ally—pushing through health care and Wall Street reform when their party held the majority, trying to fend off Republican assaults now in the minority. He outraged the GOP by changing filibuster rules to speed approval of Obama appointees, leading his Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell to say he'd be "remembered as the worst leader of the Senate ever."
After suffering a serious eye injury during a home exercise accident, the five-term senator recently announced he would not seek re-election in 2016. He talked to me in his hometown of Searchlight, Nevada. Below is a condensed, edited transcript of the conversation:
Harwood: As a boxer, what were you good at?
Reid: I was a very good boxer. I had a really good overhand right. I could box with just about everybody. I acted as a sparring partner to professional fighters. I felt it gave me confidence.
I fought for two years. I'm glad I quit. I'm not too sure all those blows I took to the head did me much good.
Harwood: What do you make of the calls that have circulated to ban boxing because it's too brutal?
Reid: I would ban football before I'd ban boxing. I think it's much more dangerous than boxing. At least boxing, you know what you have going into it. And, well, it just won't happen. They would just go to fight someplace else. So it's better that it's regulated.
Harwood: People make the obvious connection, "Reid, boxing, Washington." One of my colleagues wrote a book, "Fight Club," about Washington. Tell me if you think of Washington that way, and has the fight changed?
Reid: Number one, the Senate is a much better place since I came—not because of me, but because of women. We have lots of women in the Senate now, and that's good. Women fight.
The negative is Citizens United—that has made it so the fights are unfair. We have now 15 people in the country who basically control most of what goes on in politics. They give huge amounts of money—the Koch brothers and others. Not everyone can go out as I did and compete with them. I went out last couple of cycles and raised a lot of money, playing by their rules, the rules I don't like.
Harwood: What do you say, on that subject of transparency, to people who say, "Look how rich Reid got while he's in office"?
Reid: I made a lot beforehand. Let me tell you just a little quick story. I was a brand new lawyer, and we went to have a coffee break. And a lawyer who became a famous lawyer, became extremely wealthy, looks at me and he said, "I'm going to give you some advice. Never invest money in anything except undeveloped real estate. The value just keeps going up. This is a growing community." I followed his advice. My money was made in real estate that I invested in when I was practicing law.
Harwood: Isn't what McConnell did—saying "I want to make Obama a one-term president"—exactly what George Mitchell did to the first Bush, what Dole did to Clinton, what Daschle tried to do to Bush? Isn't that the job of a majority leader when the president's in the other party?
Reid: Of course, the job of every opposition is to do things to push back at the president in power. But not oppose everything. We accomplished things during the Mitchell era. We were able to pass things during the time that Bush was president. Leave No Child Behind—where'd that come from? We did it because it was right thing for the country. It was a step in the right direction. I thought he was a lousy president, but I still joined in voting for things that he pushed forward.
It's only happened during the Obama administration. And that didn't happen in Reagan. We had a huge majority in the House during the Reagan years. Those were productive years. During George Bush number one, we did good things with him.
One of the people I still talk about that I enjoyed working with was Trent Lott. Trent Lott was a good Republican leader. He was a very, very devout conservative, but he was pragmatic. We worked together to get things done.
Harwood: Republicans describe you as a relentless partisan. Is that the right way to think of Harry Reid?
Reid: During the six years that I ran the Senate floor—Daschle was the leader—Republicans loved me. People were effusive in their praise for me because I protected them on the floor. I was the only one on the floor. I was there all the time. I never took advantage of them. I made sure they were included in everything.
I become the Democratic leader, and I work extremely hard to get things done for Obama. I have a lot of the same philosophy he does. He and I have backgrounds that are very similar. He came from nowhere. I think I probably did, too. So, I worked hard for him. And I think what he has tried to do, Wall Street reform, ObamaCare, tobacco regulation, credit card regulation, all these things that have been so terrific for the country—I agree with.
Harwood: What did you think when Jim Inhofe threw that snowball on the floor of the Senate?
Reid: They had to get permission from me to allow him to do that. It's not within the keeping of the rules of the Senate. They said, "Do you mind him doing it?" I said, "Well, have him go ahead." Jim and I are friends. His stand on global warming is ridiculous.
I could go through a lot of senators who I don't agree with them politically but I like them as people.
Jim DeMint and I agree on very little politically. But I've always said nice things about Jim DeMint. You know why? Because he believes in all this stuff. I think there are people—and I won't give you any names—who are doing things for political consumption.
Harwood: What McConnell says he's doing is different from you. He's letting the sunshine in, letting the Senate work its will more than you were willing to.
Reid: That's pretty easy to do because he has us to deal with. We could stop virtually everything that he tried to do if we acted like them. We're not going to treat them like they've treated us. We're going to work on things that we agree on.
If Mitch McConnell hated the (filibuster) rule that I did so much, why didn't they change it? The Senate was in an intractable position. The filibuster rule has been changed numerous times. And it'll be changed in the future. But it's not going to go away.
Harwood: One of the things that's been striking to me lately is people throwing around the word "dictator." You said Boehner was acting like a dictator and he cussed you out at the White House.
Reid: If I had known it'd make him that mad, I wouldn't have said it. John Boehner, as a person, I like a lot. He has been very good to me. We've done a lot. I hope this doesn't cause him to lose his speakership, but we've done a lot. We don't do it publicly. If you go out and see all the crises we've had, and they go away—we've had our fingerprints on that.
Harwood; How are you feeling? And when you leave the Congress, leave the Senate, how much time you going to spend in Nevada, how much in Washington, what are you going to do?
Reid: I feel really good. The strength is back. I can't see in my right eye. There's no technology available today that's going to give me my sight back. Maybe they'll come up with something.
I can't do everything I did. I can't do push-ups and sit-ups for three months post-surgery. I walk a lot.
I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm not going to lobby. I'm not going to practice law. I'll keep busy. I may want one of your jobs here—to be an analyst on TV and say all these good things that you always say about me.