Democrat Reid Shoots From the Lip

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has generated controversy with his comments.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has generated controversy with his comments. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Jim Manley may be the most nervous person in the Capitol right now, and understandably so. His boss, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, is about to step in front of a microphone.

The Nevadan has, in the few short months since Senate Democrats chose him to be their leader, called the president of the United States a "loser," the chairman of the Federal Reserve a "hack" and a Supreme Court justice an "embarrassment."

So when Reid approached the cameras yesterday afternoon to give his weekly news conference, a crowd gathered, wondering if he is packing new epithets.

He is. After Manley declares the session over, the senator solicits another question -- whether his calling President Bush a "loser" has poisoned debate -- and lets loose all over again.

He blames Bush for "a fictitious crisis on Social Security," "deficits that are absolutely unbelievable," "an intractable war in Iraq," "destroying public education," "attempting to change the very basis of this country," paying "no attention" to the uninsured and leaving people "begging for prescription drugs."

"So maybe my choice of words was improper," Reid allows. "But I want everyone here, I repeat, to know I'm going to continue to call things the way that I see them. And I think this administration has done a very, very bad job for this nation and the world."

Reid turns and departs leaving his listeners scribbling. "Tell us what you really feel," one jokes.

A Bush White House official once observed that witnessing a news conference by Paul O'Neill, Bush's loose-lipped former Treasury secretary, was like watching a child play with a loaded gun. Now it's Democrats' turn to watch and worry.

Manley puts his boss's colorful language in the best light, saying Reid "speaks his mind." Republicans prefer to portray him as a loose cannon; the Republican National Committee put out a compilation of Reid's greatest linguistic hits Monday titled "Reid All About It." A danger for Democrats is that their leader's utterances -- even if colleagues privately agree with him -- could make them look unreasonable at exactly the time when they are trying to convince Americans that they are the sensible ones in the looming fight over Bush's judicial nominees.

Reid has threatened memorably to "screw things up" in the Senate if Republicans ban the filibuster, and he proposed "to go behind the pool hall" to resolve the matter. He's also called the matter a "carnival" and accused the other side of "amateur leadership" and being "drunk with power."

Such pugilism may seem peculiar on the lips of Reid, a Mormon with a bookish appearance and a gentle voice. But Democrats have come to expect such bluntness from their new leader. A few weeks ago, Reid baffled fellow partisans when he pronounced on the Senate floor that it would take a "miracle" for the Democrats to regain control of the chamber in next year's elections.

That followed his disclosure late last year that he could support Antonin Scalia, the left's bete noire, as chief justice. Reid praised "the brilliance of his mind" and called him "one smart guy." The words infuriated Democrats but drew sympathy from Howard Dean, who observed: "Many times in the campaign I said a few things like that without thinking through the implications of what I was saying."

Senate Democrats, stunned by their losses in 2004, knew what they were getting when they chose Reid to lead them. In 2003, he had stood and spoke on the Senate floor for nearly nine hours -- without even a break -- to foil Republicans' scheduling. Before that, Reid had called the president "a liar" who "betrayed the country."

Reid seems to be trying to restrain himself. Approaching the microphones after the Senate Democrats' weekly lunch, Reid carries a stack of note cards and, after asking Manley whether he can begin, announces that he will begin with an opening statement about the judicial showdown. He is the voice of reason, offering a "path away from the precipice" from this "entirely unnecessary" dispute, and suggests "two reasonable ways to avert this constitutional crisis."

He pauses to remove his glasses and wipe his red eyes. "These are not real tears, they're tears of hay fever," he reassures.

When the questions start, Reid initially refuses to take the bait. Asked whether Bush is preventing a resolution, he responds with a calm explanation about how Bush has abandoned his promise to Reid not to get involved in the judges dispute. "Either the president misunderstood my very direct statement, or he's had a change of mind or wasn't being candid with me," Reid says.

He stays similarly restrained -- angry but calm -- through a dozen questions, and a relieved Manley calls out "last question." But the senator has other plans, and he invites a reporter to repeat an earlier query about the "loser" epithet. Reid, who had immediately apologized to the White House, now attaches an asterisk to the apology.

"Maybe it was a poor choice of words," he says. "But I want everyone within the sound of my voice to know how displeased I am with what this White House is doing to our country." Reid has nothing to worry about.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company