Reid retiring from Senate with legacy much deeper than master GOP agitator

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A massive, new photograph of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is affixed to the wall of his press office on the third floor of the U.S. Capitol.

It’s no surprise the walls of Reid’s press shop are festooned with pictures of the Nevada Democrat. But this is no average picture. Reid’s not standing behind a lectern, fielding questions from the press. This isn’t a glimpse of Reid chatting up Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

This is an action shot by Politico’s John Shinkle, almost identical to the one by Reuters’ Yuri Gripas that accompanies this story.

Shinkle captured Reid -- striding with resolution -- through the Ohio Clock Corridor just outside the Senate chamber. Reid’s head is down. A visage of mission spills across his face. The leader wears his now-signature Ray-Bans. The sunglasses are a requirement after two rounds of eye surgery following a calamitous, New Year’s Day exercise accident. The photo reveals Reid’s decked out in a dark suit, a crisp white shirt and a grey tie. He clutches at the lower lapels of his coat, pulling the sides together -- all while in motion.

The get-up, the shades and mien make Reid resemble something out of “Men in Black.” See Reid in this picture and you might think you’re encountering Agent K, tracking aliens and deploying his nerualyzer.

Reid looks like the kind of guy you wouldn’t want to mess with in a dark ally. After all, he’s a former U.S. Capitol Police officer and boxer.

In one respect, this is the essence of Harry Reid. Rugged as the landscape in his native hometown of Searchlight, Nevada. Unwavering. Headstrong. Ruthless. Maddening to Republicans -- and sometimes to fellow Democrats.

Reid announced his retirement from the Senate on Friday morning.

He contends the decision isn’t related to his injuries. But he noted the exercise incident granted him and wife, Landra, “down time. I have had time to ponder and think.” That solidified Reid’s future.

Both parties have seen unprecedented stability at the very top leadership positions in both the House and Senate for some time now.

McConnell took over as GOP leader in 2007 after then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., retired. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., emerged as the Democrats’ leader and later speaker after then-Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., stepped aside from the post in 2002.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, assumed the Republican leader mantle after the GOP lost control of the House and then-Speaker Denny Hastert, R-Ill., vacated his slot in 2006. Reid matriculated to Democratic leader in 2005 after then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., lost in 2004.

There’s certainly speculation about Reid’s chances for re-election in 2016 in a swing state. What may have emerged as a more daunting challenge for his is re-election as Democratic leader. At least six senators didn’t back Reid for a return engagement following a nine-seat, Democratic blood-letting at the midterms.

It would be easy to dismiss him. Ward Baker of the National Republican Senatorial Committee chided Reid in a Friday statement, saying he “decided to hang up his rusty spurs” and asserting that Reid now becomes “irrelevant and a lame duck.”

Such antipathy for Reid may be born of frustration. It’s Reid who led Senate Democrats’ to filibuster a Department of Homeland Security funding measure, which Republicans loaded with provisions to curb President Obama’s immigration executive orders. The GOP finally caved. It’s Reid who helped block an otherwise bipartisan human trafficking bill over abortion concerns.

Republicans blamed Reid for obstruction when they were in the minority. Now the GOP is in the majority and it still blames Reid. Think Reid still won’t drive Republicans nutty over the next 22 months? Irrelevant?

The political landscape is littered with those who underestimated Reid. He defeated Tea Party darling Sharron Angle by 6 percentage points in the Republican landslide year of 2010. That was an election in Republicans were positive they would not only whip Reid but capture the Senate. In 1998, Reid defeated then-Rep. John Ensign, R-Nevada, by a mere 401 votes.

Reid’s wisp-thin voice betrays his steely exterior. For instance, barely anyone could hear Reid speak over the din in the Capitol Rotunda last week during a presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to golf icon Jack Nicklaus. But that soft-spoken tone doesn’t mean Reid won’t rumble with practically anyone.

In 2008 session with the press, Reid scolded journalists for not grasping the nuances of a parliamentary tactic on energy legislation. He admonished the scribes that they should “watch the floor more often. You might learn something.” Minutes later, another reporter still wasn’t clear on Reid’s procedural plan. The Nevada Democrat asked the reporter if she “spoke English” and questioned whether she was hard of hearing.

“Turn up your Miracle-Ear,” Reid berated the reporter.

Even visitors to the U.S. Capitol aren’t immune to Reid’s umbrage.

“In the summertime, because of the high humidity and how hot it gets here, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol,” Reid said during the 2008 dedication of the U.S. Capitol Visitor’s Center.

A master agitator, Reid got under the skin of Bill Frist in November, 2004. Reid seized the Senate floor and engineered a closed session to debate controversial intelligence that led to the war in Iraq. As is Senate tradition, Frist, then the majority leader, controlled the floor. But Reid hijacked all of that.

Frist was practically stammering when he stormed out of the chamber to protest to the press corps Reid’s brazen antic.

“I have never been slapped in the face with such an affront,” steamed Frist. “It’s an affront to me personally.”

Trust between the Senate majority and minority leaders is sacred. Otherwise, the Senate accomplishes little. So I asked Frist what this meant to his relationship with Reid, still new on the job as minority leader.

“For the next year-and-a-half, I can’t trust Senator Reid,” seethed First.

Only twice as a journalist have I thought someone was about to deck me after I asked a tough question. The first time was in 2001 when I posed a pointed interrogatory to hockey great Mario Lemieux after a frustrating playoff loss to the Washington Capitals. The exchange wound up on SportsCenter. The second occasion came when I asked Reid that day why he didn’t first “consult” with Frist before executing his parliamentary caper.

“Consult with the leader so he stops me from going and moving on this? What do you mean consult with him? What are you talking about?” chafed Reid.

I tried to follow up, suggesting such conversation was the Senate norm. Reid cut me off.

“Consult with him? All he would have done is a quorum call and we couldn’t have done this. You’ve got to understand a little bit about the procedures here,” Reid bristled.

As long as Frist ran the Senate, Reid regularly tangled with the Tennessee Republican over rules. In December, 2005, Reid boiled when Frist tried some parliamentary maneuvers to approve drilling in the Arctic.

“The Republicans in Congress and the White House don’t care about rules and simply will break them when it suits their interest,” charged Reid. “The abusive practice will allow a rule change at any time and change the very nature of the Senate.”

Yet it was Reid who single handedly orchestrated one of the most-prominent changes in Senate procedure in decades. In November, 2013, Reid grew increasingly frustrated with Republican filibusters of Obama’s executive nominees. So after much consternation, Reid altered Senate precedent to limit some filibusters. Under most circumstances, the Senate can overcome a filibuster with 60 votes. But unveiled the “nuclear option,” It short-circuited the rights of the minority by dropping the threshold to end filibusters for many nominations to just a simple majority. That new precedent will echo through the Senate corridors for years.

Reid’s responsibility for the nuclear option is not without irony.

As a freshman senator in December, 1987, the Nevada Democrat found himself before the Senate Rules Committee. The subject? Potential rules changes to halt some prerogatives of unlimited debate -- a Senate fundamental that distinguishes the body from the House.

“We are not trying to turn the Senate into another House of Representatives,” said Reid at the time, not a full year into his first Senate term. “I’ve developed a great respect, even an awe, for the rules and procedures of the Senate.”

Reid continued.

“The rules are a carefully-crafted compromise designed to protect the right of a majority to prevail while preserving the right of a minority to prolong debate,” he said

Some may find a paradox in Reid’s position as a freshman in 1987 and his nuclear option ploy in 2013. Reid’s detractors will say that’s him as “Man in Black,” cutting through the Senate corridors. Cold. Calculating. Lethal.

But like Reid’s 1987 and 2013 dichotomies, the senator is split, too. Most major political leaders are multi-faceted, complex figures. Reid is no exception. On one hand, there’s the Senate warrior, fighting for his party and his president. Challenging reporters and ticking off Republicans. On the other, Reid’s just a regular guy. Joking about baseball. Extolling the achievements of fellow Nevadan Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals. Even giving reporters ideas about what to do when visiting his home state.

Early last year, I told Reid I was headed to Las Vegas for vacation. He asked me where I would stay. I replied I previously roomed at the Venetian, the Bellagio and Mandalay Bay.

“Why don’t you try Wynn,” Reid suggested, referring to the sprawling hotel-casino complex owned by gambling mogul Steve Wynn.

On another occasion, Reid and I chatted about Lotus of Siam, an off-the-Strip Thai restaurant in Las Vegas for which we have mutual affection. Reid whipped out his phone and dialed Landra. He inquired with her about a special pumpkin dish she devoured during their last dinner at Lotus of Siam. Reid encouraged me to try the same fare during my next meal there.

That doesn’t quite comport with the action shot of the Man in Black plastered to the wall in Reid’s press headquarters. The middleweight boxer. The Senate brawler mixing it up with Frist and McConnell. But it reveals the diverse sides of Reid. There’s the sports nut. There’s the booster for Nevada. And there’s the calculating, Senate tactician.

The “Man in Black” captured in Shinkle’s artful photograph is part of Reid’s aura.

And you’re never quite sure when the Man in Black is going to show up.