WASHINGTON — The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, scraped his way to re-election last week, and some members of his staff — relieved to still have their jobs — are calling him Harry Houdini. But with his Democratic caucus reduced, and Republicans set to take over the House, Reid may want to brush up on his magic skills: passing bills next year, or even just keeping his senators unified, may require gravity-defying tricks.
Reid can claim a numerical majority in the next Congress, and, at 53-47, it will be bigger than the two-seat advantage he held from 2007 to 2009. But the Republican majority in the House will put Senate Democrats instantly on the defensive, forcing them to protect their legislative accomplishments over the past two years, like the new health care law, which Republicans are insisting they will repeal and replace.
As for any new agenda, the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has put Democrats on notice that he will not give much, if any, ground. And aides to Reid said that has him looking to focus his efforts in the months ahead on a handful of issues on which there is a possibility for bipartisan compromise: education; trade; energy — provided that any bills are modest in scope; and perhaps cybersecurity.
Of course, before Reid can look ahead, he must first navigate a lame-duck session set to begin next week and try to help Democrats get out of the box they seem to have locked themselves in on the expiring Bush tax cuts. Almost any deal to extend all of the Bush-era rates will look like surrender, but some Democrats said Reid might be able to claim a victory of sorts if he were to succeed in blocking an extension of the lower rates on any income above $1 million.
Reid declined an interview request this week as he returned to work at the Capitol. Aides said he was not ready to answer questions about the lame-duck session or the next two years. But in his victory speech, Reid, a onetime boxer, said, "The bell that just rang isn't the end of the fight, it's the start of the next round," and he acknowledged the steep challenges.
He added, "Tomorrow morning, there will still be too few jobs for too many people, there will still be too many foreclosure signs in too many front yards, there will still be too many kids in crowded classrooms and too many students wondering how can they afford college."
If Reid has no choice but to scale back his legislative goals, he is also under heavy pressure from members of his caucus, particularly senators up for re-election in 2012, when Democrats will be forced to defend 23 seats. On a conference call right after the elections, some of those senators immediately began pressing Reid to focus tightly on jobs and the economy and to help them build a strong record to run on.
"Not only Democrats would be better off but the institution and the country would be better off if we spent more of our time working on policies that help create jobs," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who is among those on the ballot in 2012, and whose state just elected a Republican senator and governor.
"That's a main area where we have to show progress on," Casey said.
Casey noted that Reid and the Democrats had already pushed through policies to help lift the economy, including a tax break to spur hiring and aid for small businesses. But he said Democrats would do well to play legislative small ball.
"Break things up, keep it small, don't get into really big and overly complex pieces of legislation," he said.
That should not be hard given the limited room Reid will have to maneuver.
At the same time, Reid will often have to play defense, fending off legislation pushed through by House Republicans. Still, whatever the pressures ahead, Reid is noticeably relieved to have avoided the fate of his predecessor, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who became a target of Republicans and was ousted in 2004. Colleagues who have seen Reid, who turns 71 next month, say he looks five years younger than he did in October.
Several Senate Democrats expressed relief that the looming battle between Reid's two likely successors, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Charles E. Schumer of New York, had been averted, or at least postponed.
In the curious math of the Senate, Reid's life may actually be easier with his not having 59 votes in his caucus.
Over the past two years, Reid struggled to get legislation adopted — even during the six months that his party controlled the 60 votes needed to surmount Republican filibusters. Often, bills were approved only after Reid had resorted to unsavory political deals to win the votes of specific senators or forced Democrats in the House to simply accept whatever watered-down package he could get through the Senate.
In the next Congress, aides said, he will no longer be expected to try to pick off one or two Republican votes to reach the 60 needed to overcome filibusters. Nor will he be accused of failing to push through bills that the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, succeeded in muscling through her chamber.
As the man who controls the business on the Senate floor, Reid can swerve this way and that as he tries to negotiate with McConnell and Republicans over amendments, while also trying to corral votes among Democrats, win over allies and draw opponents into the open. In a chamber where any one senator can delay legislation for days, he alternately coaxes and threatens, cajoles and castigates.
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Aides say that is unlikely to change. After returning to Washington on Tuesday, he was quickly back at it, meeting separately with Schumer and Durbin on strategy, speaking by phone with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, about developing legislation, and with Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, about the prospects of repealing the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military.
He also met Wednesday with Pelosi to chart plans for the lame-duck session, including the debate on taxes and, aides said, has spoken several times with President Barack Obama.
With McConnell taking a tough line, Reid is said to be hopeful of potential deals with the likely Republican House speaker, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, with whom he has a cordial relationship. They have talked by phone and are scheduled to have dinner at the White House next week with other congressional leaders.