The Sisyphus from Searchlight

Harry Reid loves movies. "I go to the movies every chance I get," he says, sitting in a lavish conference room just off the Senate floor at the north end of the Capitol.

It is noon on a Friday, and a narrow beam of sunlight shines in through the window and rests on one side of Reid's face, making his right eye appear a little bluer than his left. In recent weeks, he says, he has seen The Bourne Ultimatum and hated it, and The 3:10 to Yuma and loved it. But it was In the Valley of Elah that Reid really enjoyed. "The acting," he says, trailing off. "Tommy Lee Jones, and Susan Sarandon ... and then that ugly woman -- Charlize Theron, she added a little to it."

Reid's unexpected injection of comedy (in October Esquire named Theron the "Sexiest Woman Alive") causes Reid's communications director, Jim Manley, to almost pop a vein trying to contain his guffaws.

Reid, animated now in a way unlike the dour, partisan man o' war persona he shows in the Senate, keeps talking. "The Valley of Elah," he says, "is where David and Goliath fought their battle."

This elemental tussle seems to hold special sway in Reid's psyche. In his successful second run for the Senate in 1986, Reid ran television ads in which he depicted himself as a David pitted against a Republican Goliath. In the ads, Reid showed himself to be under assault by a gang of Washington politicians.

Of course, in the famous biblical tale, there is no battle at all: Two armies face off and for a long time they just shout insults at each other. Then David, who was "but a youth and ruddy, and of a fair countenance," decides to take the fate of the Israelites onto his own shoulders. Defying very long odds, he fells Goliath with "a single shot through the forehead."

The moral of the story, of course, is that courage can pay great and unexpected dividends, and even in the most dire circumstances the tide will eventually turn.

* * *

Reid is the Democratic leader in the United States Senate. A converted Mormon who reads a few verses from the Bible each night before bed, Reid also finds himself at the center of one of the epic struggles of our time: the confrontation between the reckless ambitions of the Bush administration, as defined by the disastrous war in Iraq, and the demands of a weary nation that, largely, would like to see the war ended and the administration contained. In a very fundamental way, the political struggle to end the Iraq War and to curb Bushism rests more squarely on the shoulders of Harry Reid than on those of any other single person.

The big question is whether the hard-edged, nonideological, partisan dealmaker is up to the job. The plotline so far has been one of slow, steady progress, near losses, and frustrating setbacks. Last spring, as the debate over the war grew more heated, Reid declared Bush's efforts in Iraq a failure and said he believed "this war is lost, that the surge is not accomplishing anything." Republicans were outraged and some Democrats uneasy at the remarks. The comment drew an uncommon fusillade of criticism from the dean of the Washington press corps, David Broder. "Here's a Washington political riddle where you fill in the blanks: As Alberto Gonzales is to the Republicans, Blank Blank is to the Democrats -- a continuing embarrassment thanks to his amateurish performance," Broder wrote. "If you answered 'Harry Reid' give yourself an A."

The question of Reid's effectiveness has been a parlor game in Washington since he took over as minority leader more than two years ago, but the scrutiny intensified when Democrats took control of the Congress, making him the most powerful elected Democrat in the land. Reid has been a source of deep concern, disappointment even, for some who had hoped for more cataclysmic confrontations with Bush, particularly on Iraq. For every Senate vote in which Democrats are unable to prevail, Reid is called to account.

These judgments may be too harsh; it is Reid's burden that so much of his success can look like failure. But that is the inescapable fact of the asymmetrical comparison with which he must live: Legislative progress will never compare well with wins and losses on the battlefield. Close votes are no balm for a rising body count.

Democrats emerged from the 2006 election with control of both houses of Congress and with some degree of a popular mandate to end the war. Slowly they have tried to force President Bush into a corner with legislation that would require him to bring the troops home. In many segments of the left, the unexpected Democratic gains last November signaled not just a triumph over the president and his party, but an imminent end to the war as well.

But that calculation was, by necessity, dependent on Republicans getting the message voters intended to send. They did not. And now Reid is caught between his limited maneuverability and the huge expectations of those anti-war voters who put Democrats back in control of the Congress.

To his credit, Reid has held together a fractious Democratic caucus, delivering a solid block of anti-war votes over the last nine months -- remarkable when you consider that his caucus includes everyone from socialist Bernie Sanders to the deeply conservative Nebraskan Ben Nelson. And while Democrats picked up six new seats, the early money was that a good number of the new additions, coming from the Red States of America -- Montana, Virginia, Missouri -- would be more conservative, more cautious, and less inclined to hold to the party line.

"I think he has an incredibly difficult and challenging job," says freshman Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. "He got a tiny vote margin and he's got people elected who are politically all over the place and he has kept us together. That's not been easy."

Democrats are continuously trying to explain why they come up short in their confrontation with Bush, but there is no longer any question that the party is united against the war, and that was not always the case. One Senate effort to redeploy troops last summer got 13 votes. This fall Reid thought he had 59. It turned out Reid was wrong; he ended up with 56, and has been criticized for not having done more. The critiques usually go to lack of toughness on the familiar question of funding.

The sharpest criticism came from those who wanted the president impeached and Congress to end funding for the war. Others insisted that despite the difficult arithmetic he faced in the Senate, Reid should have made it tougher for Republicans to pursue their pro-war, pro-Bush strategy.

The Democratic presidential contenders, sensing the growing despair within the base over the lack of progress on Iraq, have been most vocal in demanding fixed deadlines for withdrawal and defunding. "The Democrats should ... announce that no money will be appropriated for any military action against another nation without a proper declaration of war," former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo recently wrote in The New York Times. There are others who want to withdraw the 2002 authorization for the war -- a strategy that has the stale quality of a do-over.

Another strategy has been pushed by former Sen. Mike Gravel, now an oddball entry in the Democratic presidential sweepstakes, who long ago helped lead the fight to end the Vietnam War on the Senate floor. He has called on Reid to turn the Senate into a vote treadmill for Republicans. In a letter to Reid, he wrote: "If you really want to shape war policy, you must call up a cloture vote every single day. Of course you wouldn't have the votes at first, but that's why you need to force the Senate to remain in session seven days a week to vote every day on cloture throughout the summer."

This is a strategy that has possibilities, but it is not guaranteed to work, particularly in an institution designed to prevent easy consensus; the Senate was built to say no. But the strategy has no chance of success unless Democrats want to shut down all other business and simply work toward torturing enough GOP votes to the other side. Since Democrats have calculated that they need an agenda beyond Iraq, another strategy would be voting to cut off funding. Reid and Russ Feingold are co-sponsoring a bill to cut off funds for the war. The problem with this strategy, again, is the votes: While polls show that increasingly Americans are willing to cut off funds for Iraq, the defunding bill failed on the floor in September, 28-70.

So Reid must hold his position until the Democratic hand is stronger, which, in the cultural arithmetic of the Senate, simply means getting 60 votes to shut down the chatter on the other side by overcoming the GOP's filibusters. Asked if the strategy is working as he'd hoped, Reid says, "Actually the strategy I envisioned was walking out and giving a speech and having the Republicans crumble and start voting with us." That's his famously dry humor. More seriously he acknowledges, "My majority is very slim."

And there it is: A sprawling, expensive, deadly war grinds on. And it is left to Harry Reid, and with his counterpart House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to explain why the president seems to have remained in the winning column on the war.

The sad truth is that Democrats now see the next election as the best way to end the war -- both by winning the White House and by widening their margin in the Senate. After the euphoria of last November, Democrats are now compelled to go back to the voters with a Dickensian plea: "Please, may we have some more?" Reid thinks Democrats may get it. "I think they could be in for another shock like they had last time," he says of the Republicans. Which is one thing that would make Reid's job a lot easier.

* * *

Harry Reid was born in Searchlight, Nevada, in December 1939. It was a hard place in a hard time. His mother took in laundry for money, and his father, Harry Sr., was a hard-rock miner, digging for gold in the hollowed out mountains of southeastern Nevada. For the Reids and their four boys -- Harry was third -- the good life was as elusive as the precious metal that was supposed to be buried in the mountains.

The legend of Reid's tough upbringing is now a matter of lore: The home without plumbing, the 40-mile hitchhike to high school in Henderson, the high school fights and boxing matches. There is the story of the dentures he bought for his toothless mother with some of the first money he ever made. His father killed himself in 1972, at 58.

Hard times are bred into Reid, and on some level that explains why he loves Woody Guthrie, who chronicles those hard times in song. "I am a Woody Guthrie junkie. I know more about Woody Guthrie than you can imagine. You have no idea how much I know about Woody Guthrie." His favorite song? "Union Maid," an anthem to fighting the long odds.

Reid ran for the Senate in 1974 and lost by 624 votes to Paul Laxalt, whom he would succeed 12 years later. He practiced law and lost a race for mayor of Las Vegas in 1976. In 1977, he was appointed chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, where he faced down the Vegas mob. One measure of his success was the bomb his wife found rigged to the family car one day, after she had loaded the kids in. For a while after that the Reids turned on their car by remote control.

In 1986, after two terms in the House, Reid ran successfully for the Senate seat he had come so close to winning a dozen years earlier. There is no question that Reid, the Bible-reading, yoga-practicing Morman, is afraid of neither hard times nor a long, hard fight.

* * *

Reid has an almost spiritual regard for the senate, and deep respect for those who share his views of the place, but clearly John Warner, the Virginia gentleman who has come to embody the high-minded seriousness of the Senate, has pissed him off.

In August, after a trip to Iraq, Warner, the former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, suggested that the president could bring 5,000 troops home by Christmas. It was exactly the kind of signal that Reid had been waiting for -- Republicans willing to make principled breaks from the White House on the war.

When the Senate had voted in August 2006 to redeploy troops out of Iraq, the bill died 86-13 with 31 of the 45 Democrats in the Senate voting no. This April, the Senate passed a supplemental spending bill with withdrawal deadlines that required a presidential veto to stop it. By July, there were 56 votes for an amendment by Virginia freshman Jim Webb that would have required the Pentagon to keep soldiers home for as long as they had been deployed; Warner and five other Republicans voted for it. It fell short of the 60 votes necessary to end the debate and a GOP filibuster, but Reid thought he had reason to be hopeful. The 56 did not include Tim Johnson, the South Dakota senator who was still recovering from a brain hemorrhage that had taken him out of the Senate after the 2006 election.

And then in August Warner announced that he thought some troops should come home by Christmas. Warner is key to moving GOP votes, and Reid thought he really only needed one more. By the time the amendment came to a vote again in the third week of September, it was called the Webb-Hagel amendment, having attracted the support of the most vocal GOP critic of the war in the Senate, Nebraskan Chuck Hagel.

Reid thought he was close: "I'd had conversations with Republican senators, one of whom said, 'The biggest mistake I ever made was voting against [the Webb amendment],' and that person voted against it again." His anger is barely contained. "Logically, that does not make a lot of sense. So, I'd assume that I'd had that vote, and I think I did it on the basis that was a rational assumption."

He also assumed that Warner was with him. He was not.

"Warner ..." and here Reid pauses for a long time, obviously digging deep for some Senate decorum, "was a terrible disappointment. Here was a man who had agreed to co-sponsor the amendment, and had voted for it before, and suddenly with a hug from Bush, he decides that he can't co-sponsor nor can he vote for it again. ... That's about as flip-flopping as a fish on the wharf after he gets caught. That's flipping all over. ... I guess he wants to be invited to White House dinners or something."

* * *

The loss on the Webb amendment may have doomed any chance of a bipartisan deal on Iraq. It has hardened the lines, and Reid, a consummate dealmaker who reveres pragmatism, seems little interested in reaching out anymore. If his earlier strategy was about capitalizing on the public's anger at the war, his new one is, too: His goal is now to make support for the war as politically costly as possible for Republican senators.

"I just think they are making a big mistake, and we are just going to just keep pushing," he vows. "This is no longer just Bush's war. This is Bush's war and the Republicans in the Senate's war."

His approach is to keep forcing votes of the Republicans, even though he seems to have given up hope that he can convince many more to break with the president, despite Bush's poor approval ratings.

"The Republicans in the Senate do not represent the mainstream Republicans throughout the country," he says. "Philosophically, they think the president is doing a great job. They support him on virtually everything he does. They support him on not funding health care, education. They support him on not doing anything about global warming. They support him on all these tax cuts. ... We are just going to keep pushing."

Reid appears ready to go into the 2008 election with the same message as 2006, which is that the highest priority for congressional Republicans has been to stick with the president. Democrats must defend 12 incumbents next year, while the Republicans have 22 seats up. While doodling through a recent meeting, Reid said he came up with a list of 12 states where Democrats could mount serious challenges for GOP seats.

"If you could bet on Senate races -- I guess some people do; it's not legal -- I think you would bet and say that we are going to win Colorado," Reid says. "I think you would bet and say that we are going to win Virginia; I think you would bet and say we are going to win New Hampshire."

Reid noted the recent talk among Republicans about returning to their core values, like tax cuts, gay rights, and abortion. "These are not the issues the American people are going to want," he says. The question is whether Reid, with his arsenals of small stones -- tough votes on resolutions and amendments -- will be able to deliver what they want most: an end to the Iraq War. "We are going to fight hard," he pledges. "I just do the best I can."

Reid knows that the groundswell of support that put him in the leader's chair can turn to outrage without some sense of progress, but he remains unbowed. "I don't apologize to anyone for what we've been able to accomplish. I've been able, having 49 votes, out of 100 senators, to accomplish a lot. My senators have held together. And they have held together quite well."

Democrats are sticking with him, or at least not turning against him. Even, whose frustration with Democrats on the war is palpable, adopted a strategy of not saying anything about Reid after he allowed a roll call vote condemning the organization for an ad critical of Gen. David H. Petraeus. MoveOn leaders "are just not dealing with the Senate leadership at all," said a spokesman for the group.

Among Democratic senators, Reid's position may never be more secure. "He's doing a great job," says Ted Kennedy, a senator for 45 years. "While the focus has been on the war, this leader has kept the Democrats together." Montana freshman Jon Tester says he thinks people underestimate Reid. "I think he comes across on TV as being meek and kind, but he's tougher than nails. I think he does a great job considering the majority he has to work with."

In a 1998 book about his hometown, Searchlight: The Camp That Didn't Fail, Reid reflects on the uncertainty that comes with living in a mining town, comparing it to the ocean: "It has tides that sweep in and tides that go out, the ebb and flow of nature," he writes. "Those in the ebb are sometimes unable to see the flow." Reid may now be in the ebb, and in many ways his work to end the war in Iraq comes down to that: seeing, and finding, the flow.