Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s announcement early Friday that he’ll retire at the end of his term next year has touched off speculation about his likely successor. The spotlight is already on two of the Senate’s most powerful and influential Democrats – Charles Schumer of New York and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.
Reid has already endorsed Schumer as his successor, while Durbin has been privately making it clear he won’t challenge Schumer for the top position, Politico reported today. Schumer’s and Durbin’s offices declined comment.
Both men would certainly bring enormous experience and sophistication to the job, although they have very different personalities and management styles. Some say Schumer has the upper hand for now because so many of his Democratic colleagues owe their elections to him.
Reid’s announcement on a You Tube video that he will not seek a sixth term in 2016 came as a surprise: Back in January he’d declared his determination to seek another term despite a serious freak injury to his eye late last year while he was exercising.
The injury, however, has slowed him down. And he was almost certain to face a strong challenge next year in Nevada – a state that has trended Republican in recent years and reelected GOP Sen. Dean Heller and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval by substantial margins. Sandoval is the first Hispanic elected as Nevada’s chief executive and is a rising Republican star who’s been frequently mentioned as a possible Senate candidate.
The pugnacious 75-year-old Reid – a one-time boxer who grew up in tiny Searchlight, Nevada – was a relentless champion for the Democrats and advocate of President Obama’s agenda while he served as Majority Leader.
But his tactic of repeatedly blocking votes on the Senate floor of bills passed by the GOP- controlled House to spare his Democratic colleagues and the White House from having to make difficult political choices was blamed by some for contributing to the Democrats’ massive losses in last November’s general election.
However, Jim Manley, Reid’s former press secretary, said Friday he sharply disagrees with that assessment and praised Reid’s record of achievement. “The dirty little secret is that some of those members of his caucus that complained publicly about some of these tactics were some of the same people urging Reid to protect them when it came to issues near and dear to their hearts,” Manley said in an interview.
In announcing his decision to retire next year, Reid said he will devote himself to helping his party regain control of the Senate rather than struggle to hang on for another six-year term.
“We’ve got to be more concerned about the country, the Senate, the state of Nevada than about ourselves,” he said. “I’m not going to run for reelection.”
He said his eye injury gave him and his wife “time to ponder and to think” about the future. Reid first assumed the reins of his party in November 2004.
There are only a small handful of Senate Democrats now who could claim the mantle of leadership after Reid steps aside. Here are three:
Chuck Schumer, 64, of New York
With his big smile and sharp elbows, Schumer has rapidly climbed the leadership ladder since first arriving from the House in early 1999.
The media-savvy Schumer served as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2006 and 2008 and picked up chits by helping colleagues win a combined 14 seats. He is a liberal political warrior who seems to enjoy going toe-to-toe with his Republican foes. He is more of a political tactician than legislative leader, although last year he began to pay more attention to floor action. Most importantly, he enjoys the trust of his fellow Democrats.
Last January, Schumer raised eyebrows during a speech in D.C. when he said Democrats repeatedly “blew the opportunity” to gain the public’s trust during the 2014 campaign. But he was quick to add he still believes that a generation-long electoral majority is within Democrats’ grasp as early as 2016.
Dick Durbin, 70, of Illinois
The three-term Democrat from President Obama’s home state can mix it up with the Republicans just as well as Schumer can, but his forte is floor debate and managing important legislation.
The soft-spoken Democratic Whip stepped in after Reid’s eye injury and steered his caucus through the first difficult weeks of the new 114th Congress with the Democrats in the minority. He is a strong speaker and debater, steeped in the history and rules of the Senate, and is well versed on most major issues.
Patty Murray, 64, of Washington State
Murray, a former teacher and school board member, broke into politics by campaigning as a “mom in tennis shoes.” She rose to prominence in the Senate as a Democratic leadership insider and chair of the Senate Budget Committee.
Her biggest claim to fame may have been cutting a bipartisan two-year budget deal with then- House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) after the 2013 government shutdown.
Although she’s clearly a dark-horse candidate for leader, her liberal credentials and demonstrated talents as a debater and legislator – and her gender – might make her an interesting compromise choice of the Democratic caucus.
The issue won’t be determined until after the November 2016 elections.
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