The Gun-Control Fight Harry Reid Can’t Win

Balancing Obama, the NRA, and shaky Dems, Reid’s in an impossible position, sources tell David Freedlander.

Alex Brandon/AP

In 2010 Harry Reid was facing perhaps the toughest campaign of his five-decade political career. The Senate majority leader has never had particularly high approval ratings back home in Nevada, and Republicans made clear that sending him back to his hometown of Searchlight was their top priority, just as the Tea Party wave was slated to crest.

But the year before, Reid cut the ribbon on Clark County Shooting Park, a 2,900-acre facility he helped build with $61 million in federal earmarks. Reid brought his antique .22-caliber rifle to the opening and proclaimed himself a fan of firearms.

“We hear a lot about guns and self-defense, and that’s good, I understand,” he said from the podium, then said that he carried a weapon during his days as head of Nevada’s Gaming Commission. “But for me, guns are more than that. In fact, for me the most important part of guns, as far as I am concerned, in my personal life, is the recreational aspect of guns.”

“These weapons become our friends. This weapon is my friend,” he added.

Witness to Reid’s declaration of love, along with assorted local dignitaries, was none other than Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association.

“I also want to thank you for your support, Senator, every day at the federal level, for the Second Amendment and the rights of American gun owners,” LaPierre told the audience, calling Reid “a true champion” of gun rights.

That November the NRA didn’t endorse Reid. But in a move that infuriated the organization’s GOP allies, it also declined to endorse Sharron Angle, his Republican opponent. Reid went on to win by 6 points.

Now President Obama has unveiled a series of proposals to prevent another mass shooting like the one last month in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and seven adults dead. For a ban on assault weapons or high-capacity magazine clips to have any chance of passage, Reid must first turn his back on LaPierre and shepherd it through a recalcitrant Senate.

Former aides of Reid’s say that despite the affection he proclaimed at the shooting range, he isn’t quite the gun lover he once appeared. Most of his shooting stories are about hunting, and most of those are from his childhood in Searchlight. He has no arsenal in his Nevada home, no antiques hanging from the walls of his office, the former aides say.

Instead, they say, Reid’s relationship with LaPierre and the NRA is evidence of the senator’s willingness to do whatever it takes to eke out political victories.

“He is ruthlessly pragmatic. That drives him far more than any ideology,” says one former aide. “His paramount interest is in keeping or expanding the [Democratic] majority and making sure that the people who are up [for reelection in 2014] come back.”

By that measure, if Reid wants the gun bill to pass, he has some arm-twisting to do. A number of the Democrats’ most vulnerable senators seeking reelection next year, including Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, come from states where support for the NRA runs deep. Landrieu and Pryor released noncommittal statements on the president’s plan, but made sure to reaffirm their support for the Second Amendment.

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And Reid too was noncommittal, sending out a statement that thanked the presidential task force but made no other promises:

“I am committed to ensuring that the Senate will consider legislation that addresses gun violence and other aspects of violence in our society early this year,” he said. “The tragedy at Sandy Hook was just the latest sad reminder that we are not doing enough to protect our citizens—especially our children—from gun violence and a culture of violence, and all options should be on the table moving forward.”

“That was vintage Reid,” one Reid watcher chuckled. “’Committed to ensuring that legislation will be considered?’ What does that even mean?”

Reid, however, must find a way please both recalcitrant Southern senators and the White House, which is pushing hard for the bill along with press-savvy urban Democratic senators such as Chuck Schumer of New York and Richard Durbin of Illinois.

In the 1990s, Reid was seeking to rise in the Senate leadership when an earlier federal-weapons assault ban was making its way through Congress. He voted against that ban, but threaded the needle a bit by voting for the larger Clinton crime bill.

This time Reid’s office has sent mixed signals about whether he would support such a ban. Current and former Senate aides say they expect the senator, ever the master of the inside game, to let the legislative process play out. A bill that curbs the right of citizens to purchase firearms is considered least likely to pass. But a measure that increases mental-health screening or tightens background checks is seen as more favorable.

“I worked up there for 20-odd years, and I saw a number of these tragedies, and each time after the initial outrage, the issue seemed to fade,” says Jim Manley, a former top aide to Reid. “The question this time is, is anything going to change? Can an assault-weapons ban get through the Senate or the House? I am not so sure. Other common-sense provisions, like limiting the size of clips? ... What it is going to take is senators up for reelection in 2014 to decide that the NRA is wrong on this issue and outside of the mainstream.”

If it looks as if no bill will pass the House, Reid is not likely make an effort in his chamber and put vulnerable members at risk.

“Something will happen. The question is what,” says one senior Hill aide. “What matters to Reid is trying to protect his caucus. I don’t think he is going to want to put Democrats in conservative-leaning states taking votes on something that won’t have a clear pathway to success.”

Complicating factors further are Reid’s potential worries about his own standing in Nevada. In 2016 he will be 77. So far he has given no indication of his intentions on running for reelection, but Reid watchers say a water-down could be a signal that he intends to run again.

“He is in an impossible position,” says Jon Ralston, who operates an eponymous website and newsletter devoted to Nevada politics. “He can’t argue to the NRA, ‘I want to stop it, but I can’t.’ But on the other hand, how do you suppress the majority of a caucus that wants something done?”

In 2010 Reid was feted a fundraiser at the home of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, despite the two men’s diverging opinions on firearms. Now Reid watchers wonder if the senator will try to go back to the well, convincing Bloomberg to match the NRA dollar for dollar to help Democrats in tough states seeking reelection in 2014 to make difficult votes.

“Reid hasn’t gotten to where he is because of his appearance or because he is a master of public speaking,” says Ralston. “He got to where he is because he is a master of inside politics. This is a guy who was the biggest Republican target in 2010 and who got the NRA to stay out of his race. That tells you all you need to know about Harry Reid.”