Is Harry Reid Really the Most Successful Majority Leader?

Yesterday, Roll Call published an article suggesting that Harry Reid has had quite an auspicious year as Majority Leader.  They observe the fact that Reid has won a larger percentage of cloture votes this year than in 2010, even though his caucus has been diminished from 59 senators to 53:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid managed to win more than half of the filibuster-breaking votes on the Senate floor in 2011, besting his success rate from the previous year.

Of the 32 cloture votes pushed by the Nevada Democrat this year, Reid won 19, or 59 percent. He lost 13 cloture votes.

That comes after hitting a success rate of 54 percent in 2010, when he won 28 cloture votes and lost 24. Sixty votes are needed to cut off debate and kill a filibuster, or invoke cloture.

Reid’s majority shrunk from 59 Senators in 2010 to 53 in 2011, increasing the number of Republicans needed to vote with the majority of Democrats in order to reach the 60-vote threshold.

I’ll be the first person to tell you that Senate Republicans have capitulated too much this year; however, that is not the primary reason for Harry Reid’s successful cloture record.  His high degree of success this year is more a symptom of a do-nothing Senate than a successful rate of filibuster-busting on the part of Reid.  In fact, there have been very few actual filibusters this session, and the few that were mounted were successful.

Harry Reid has made it standard operating procedure to automatically file for cloture, even when there is no actual filibuster.  Most of the 19 “successful” cloture votes were not filed to break a live filibuster.  They were filed for non-controversial votes, such as presidential nominations.  Even those cloture votes that pertained to controversial issues were not directed towards ending a filibuster.  On issues like the patent reform bill, omnibus, minibus, and other appropriations bills, McConnell already agreed to cave ahead of time, pursuant to a deal that was already worked out with Boehner.  Reid only filed cloture to expedite Senate business.  Some of these non-filibustered bills had two cloture votes; one on a motion to proceed and one on passage of the bill.  When these factors are accounted for, there are very few instances in which Reid successfully killed off a filibuster backed by the Republican conference.

The reality is that Harry Reid has led the biggest do-nothing Senate ever.  He has spent the majority of time on quorum calls and presidential nominations.  When there are few legislative issues brought to the floor, there are few filibusters; when there are few filibusters there are few unsuccessful cloture votes.  On average, there have been 50-55 cloture votes in recent years.  In 2010, there were only 39 because Reid enjoyed a filibuster-proof majority for much of the time, thereby precluding the need for a cloture vote.  Therefore, 32 cloture votes is actually remarkably low given the fact that Reid had nothing near a filibuster-proof majority this past year.  Then again, there wasn’t much to filibuster in the first place.

Democrats enjoyed many legislative victories this year, but they were not a result of Harry Reid’s parliamentarian tenacity or successful cloture votes.  They were the result of gratuitous capitulations on the part of GOP leaders, most notably, on budget bills.  The worst offense was McConnell’s unilateral surrender on the payroll tax/UI bill, which undercut the superior leverage of House Republicans.  That capitulation was accomplished without a single cloture vote, as there was no filibuster in place.  Jim DeMint was left out in the cold – without 40 fellow travelers.  No filibuster; no cloture votes.

Harry Reid is not a political juggernaut; he is a paper tiger – one who could be vanquished by a principled opposition.