Disgruntled Dems press Reid for change

Francis Rivera

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidPelosi blasts GOP leaders for silence on Trump Latinos build a wall between Trump and White House in new ad The true (and incredible) story of Hill staffers on the industry payroll MORE (Nev.) is under fire from fellow Democrats over how he runs their weekly caucus meetings.

Some Democratic senators are disgruntled about a lack of focus, while others think he should give them more of a chance to shape the agenda, according to lawmakers who participated in an emotional, four-hour meeting last week in the Old Senate Chamber.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), who is firmly within the mainstream of the Democratic Conference, delivered a pointed criticism of how Reid runs the meetings, arguing they jump around too much from topic to topic, according to a Democratic senator who characterized her remarks.

Cantwell told The Hill that she stood up to press Senate Democratic leaders to adopt a more focused approach toward crafting an economic strategy and communicating it to voters.

“I want us to focus on a strategy for how we’re going to focus on an economic message and implement that. We have to dedicate time to doing that and not just going through the discussion of this bill and that bill,” she said.

“We need to do more to focus on the big-picture economic message we want to deliver to middle-class Americans,” she added.

Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), who served this past election cycle as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, delivered one of the most memorable lines of the meeting, capturing the feeling that the Democratic Conference is less than the sum of its parts.

“I like you all a lot individually but I can’t stand you collectively,” he said, according to two sources familiar with this remarks.

The point he was making is that the Senate Democratic Conference needs to channel its collective energies into something that resonates with the nation.

Bennet declined to comment to The Hill about the meeting. 

Another Democratic senator — a centrist from a red state — agreed that the caucus meetings, which Reid runs each Tuesday, “need more focus.”

A third Democratic senator, from a solidly blue state, said he and his colleagues often get the impression that caucus meetings are scripted and that leadership has arrived at a conclusion in advance.

“If Reid wants to open up the process more he should start by opening up the meetings more. The House Democratic Caucus meetings were much more open than they are here in the Senate. [House Democratic Leader] Nancy Pelosi [Calif.] would often enter a caucus meeting not knowing what the outcome would be. In the Senate it feels more scripted, like it’s theater.

“A lot of us feel that way,” said the lawmaker.

A spokesman for Reid dismissed the complaints as coming from only a very few lawmakers and said the views are not representative of the broader caucus.

Criticism of Reid has bubbled to the surface following the party’s disastrous election defeats, with some questioning whether it’s time for new leadership.

Aside from liberal lawmakers who spoke to The Hill, six centrists voted against Reid for Democratic leader in the next Congress, including Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Reid has signaled he is taking the criticisms seriously.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said the leader has asked colleagues to propose ways to improve caucus meetings.

“He wants us to put on our thinking caps and give him ideas of how to make our caucus lunches, our other meetings, more productive,” he said. “I think he was genuinely asking for our input.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Reid would be open to giving colleagues more opportunity to shape the agenda but cautioned that it may not be practical to hear everyone out at length.

“Harry’s open to that, but we always have such a limited amount of time, a little over an hour, and a lot of things to talk about,” he said. “He’s open to that idea. If we organize it that way, it can be productive.”

Reid acknowledged Cantwell’s remarks in a press conference after last week’s post-mortem session.

“We had a number of brilliant statements in our caucus, [Sen.] Sherrod Brown [D-Ohio], Maria Cantwell, a number of others who talked about how important it was that we do something to let those people out there know that we’re for them,” he said.

Democrats have also pushed back against Reid’s tight control of the Senate floor agenda, which has severely limited the ability of senators from both parties to offer amendments.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) lost reelection this month after his Republican opponent repeatedly bashed him for not getting a vote on an amendment he sponsored during his six-year career.

Reid announced Tuesday that he would allow an unfettered debate this week on the USA Freedom Act, a bill to reform the National Security Agency, but Republicans blocked the bill from moving forward.

“I expect senators on both sides will want to offer amendments. Everyone should understand there is not going to be any effort to stop this by the procedural avenue we call tree-filling,” Reid said.

Another Democratic senator who spoke on condition of anonymity said a major lesson learned from the midterm elections is that the efforts to shield vulnerable senators from tough votes are not worth the political cost.

“By protecting some senators from taking what they think are tough votes you gain inches but you lose yards,” said the lawmaker. “I think you’ll see less of this nonsense in the future.”

The senator expressed optimism that Democrats would gain ground politically next year in the minority because they would be able to offer amendments and debate them on the Senate floor.

“The public is with us on most of the issues,” the lawmaker said.