Reid Apologizes for News Release on GOP

Sen. Harry M. Reid, center, joined other Democrats at the Library of Congress Wednesday in introducing their proposals to curb lobbying excesses.
Sen. Harry M. Reid, center, joined other Democrats at the Library of Congress Wednesday in introducing their proposals to curb lobbying excesses. (By Michael Robinson Chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) apologized to 33 Republican senators yesterday for a hard-hitting news release that accused them of ethical and legislative lapses, in an awkward about-face that tripped up Democrats' effort to keep the GOP majority on the defensive over alleged corruption.

"I am writing to apologize for the tone of this document and the decision to single out individual senators for criticism in it," Reid said of the 27-page statement sent by his communications office Tuesday. The release, titled, "Republicans cannot be trusted to end the culture of corruption," triggered sharp complaints from GOP officials, who said it violated Senate decorum and brought campaign-style mudslinging into the Capitol.

Reid, who headed a Democratic Party event Wednesday at the Library of Congress calling for clean government, basically agreed. The document, he wrote, "went too far, and I want to convey to you my personal regrets. . . . No one cares more about the Senate and its tradition of collegiality than I do."

Spokesman Jim Manley said Reid did not see the document before it was e-mailed to hundreds of journalists and others, but Reid did not say that in his one-page letter. The document began by stating, "Reid released the following report and statement on Republicans' abuse of power: 'The idea of Republicans reforming themselves is like asking John Gotti to clean up organized crime.' "

As partisan attacks go, the statement was hardly the most scathing seen on Capitol Hill lately. A freshman GOP House member nearly incited a brawl last year when she suggested, in a floor speech, that a Democratic veteran of the Marine Corps and the Vietnam War was a "coward." In July 2003, a Republican committee chairman in the House tried to get the Capitol Police to evict lounging Democratic lawmakers from a meeting room, then tearfully apologized to the full House. As in those earlier episodes, Reid's charges caused more discomfort for the accuser than the accused.

The document was largely devoted to linking GOP senators to indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff through campaign donations or legislative activities. But some senators with no ties to Abramoff were attacked for allegedly being "out of touch" after years of Republican control of Congress. Some purported offenses, most of them culled from newspaper articles, are years old.

For example, the document reached back into GOP Sen. George Allen's days as Virginia governor to note that he once "kept a noose and a confederate flag in his office and home" (a controversy dating from the 1993 campaign) and in 1994 called the federal government a "beast of tyranny and oppression." It said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2000 included a proposed Mississippi River flood-control levee on his list of congressional "pork."

The document accused Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) of saying "global warming is a conspiracy and a hoax." After noting that Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) had received many thousands of dollars from Abramoff clients, the document raised other complaints, including: "Burns reportedly told a female flight attendant that she could just stay home with her kids if her job was outsourced."

The document quoted a Web site devoted to news about Native Americans as saying "the chief of the Wyandotte Nation criticized Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) for taking 'dirty money' from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff." It also reached to the mid-1990s to tie Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) -- who was governor at the time -- to a more recently exposed state government scandal involving investment of public funds in rare coins. "Voinovich Administration approved Ohio's $25 million investment in Tom Noe's coin scheme," the document states.

The document drew modest attention when first released, in part because the Senate has no scheduled votes this week and few Republican lawmakers are in Washington. But as word of the press release spread in GOP circles, several senatorial aides -- including Majority Leader Bill Frist's chief of staff, Eric Ueland -- complained to Reid or his staff.

"It is beyond ironic that in an attempt to smear the ethics of others, the Democrat 'war room' chose to use taxpayer-funded staff and equipment to compile a blatantly political attack on Republican senators," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), one of the 33 named in the document. "Researching, compiling and distributing what amounts to nothing more than a campaign ad on the taxpayer's dime raises serious ethical questions."

In his letter to GOP senators, Reid said: "I myself have been the subject of similar personal attacks from Republican outlets. I understand the unfair picture they can paint and the pain they can cause. I regret the current political climate in which policy disputes escalate too quickly into personal condemnation."

A year after becoming Democratic leader, Reid has several times drawn notice for his sharp tongue, which sometimes has not been helpful to his own cause. Last February, the Republican National Committee sent a million people a 13-page flier attacking Reid's Senate record and labeling him the "chief Democrat obstructionist." The next day, the National Senatorial Republican Committee issued a release containing a 2002 quote in which Reid called President Bush "a liar."

Reid stood by that accusation, along with his labeling of then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as "a political hack." He apologized last year for having called Bush "a loser."

Congressional Republicans have done some backtracking of their own in the partisan ethics wars. In 2004, House Republicans changed party rules to allow Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) to remain as majority leader if indicted, but they rescinded the action under heavy public criticism. DeLay relinquished the leadership post last year after a Texas grand jury indicted him on charges of money laundering.

Last April, the legal counsel to Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) resigned after admitting that he wrote a memo about possible political advantages to Republicans who intervened in the case of Terri Schiavo, a severely brain-damaged woman in Florida.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company