By Dana Milbank
Friday, January 5, 2007
Harry Reid is often called the man from Searchlight, Nevada. Nobody has ever called him the man from Spotlight.
The soft-spoken Democrat became the most powerful figure in the United States Senate yesterday. But the newly minted majority leader was quickly eclipsed -- not just by the ascent of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi but even by Bill Clinton's trip to the men's room.
Minutes before Reid assumed power yesterday, the former president, in the building to see his wife sworn in for a second term, sauntered into the Senate press gallery in search of a urinal. Reporters swarmed, some abandoning their seats in the chamber where they had been waiting for Reid.
"They told me the closest restroom was in the press gallery," Clinton explained.
Reid was bound to be overshadowed yesterday. Pelosi was the first woman to become speaker in American history. Reid was merely the 20th man to become Senate majority leader since the position was created 87 years ago.
Pretty much everybody regarded the Pelosi ascent as momentous. "Historic event," said the Associated Press. "An historic day," admitted Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio). "An historic moment," claimed Pelosi herself. Only an article in Reid's home-state Las Vegas Review-Journal called his elevation "historic."
Part of the disparity, however, was less about history than style. Pelosi scheduled four days of parties for her installation -- a festival Republicans dubbed the Pelosi-Palooza -- including an extravaganza featuring Tony Bennett, and a street naming for Pelosi in her native Baltimore.
And Reid? "In Searchlight, we don't have street names," he said.
Reid, a mild-mannered Mormon, consented to not a single party in his honor this week. Instead, he assembled senators from both parties yesterday morning for a private moment of bonding in the Old Senate Chamber. Reid emerged with the minority leader, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, walking so close together their hands almost touched. "Senator McConnell and I believe this is a new day in Washington," Reid announced.
"I think Harry's got it right," McConnell answered.
After a couple of perfunctory questions, the reporters grew silent. "One more question?" Reid asked. Nobody volunteered.
"When we're not fighting, they're not asking any questions," observed Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Over on the House side, lawmakers and spectators gave Pelosi a raucous standing ovation. She waved and blew kisses. On the Senate floor, packed with old-timers including John Glenn and Walter Mondale, Reid entered mostly unnoticed. He shook a few hands, drummed his finger on his desk and hitched up his pants by the belt. Senators, meanwhile, waved up to President Clinton, who was sitting in the second row of the public gallery with his daughter and mother-in-law, greeting a line of fans and talking on a cellphone until he noticed the opening prayer had started.
The attention quickly shifted -- to Robert Byrd. The 89-year-old West Virginia Democrat, beginning his ninth term, wore a red-white-and-blue tie and punctuated the opening prayer with shouts of "Yes!" and "Mmmhmmm!" and "Yes, Lord!" and "Yes, in Jesus's name!" When he was sworn in, he twice cried out "Hallelujah!" and then "Amen!" Minutes later, he was installed as Senate president pro tempore, the majority party's most senior member. "Yeah, man! Yeah, man!" he shouted. "Hallelujah!" "I do, so help me God!" he shouted when the oath was administered. "Yeah, man!"
His colleagues were amused. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) at one point pretended to tilt a bottle into his mouth, though it was unclear whether Byrd was the target of that gesture.
Then there was Reid. He bowed over his desk for the prayer. He silently escorted senators for their swearing-in. Then, in his first utterance as majority leader, he spoke the immortal words "Mr. President, I note the absence of a quorum."
When he started his speech, Reid spoke in a barely audible voice, and his colleagues' chatter drowned out his oration. "Please," the presiding officer said with a bang of the gavel, "the majority leader is speaking."
Those who listened to Reid heard a plea for senators to work harder. "Factory workers, shopkeepers in America's malls, schoolteachers, police officers, miners, welders, and businessmen and -women work at least five days a week," he said. "Shouldn't we?"
Evidently not. Just a few minutes into Reid's speech, only 20 senators remained on the floor. Reid's deputy, Dick Durbin (Ill.), typed on his Treo. When Reid started talking about the framers of the Constitution, Clinton left the room -- and most of the remaining spectators followed him.
Outside the chamber, Clinton greeted Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and a parade of well-wishers. Spying Byrd, the former president wrapped his arms around the voluble senator. "We love you!" he told Byrd, and then he turned to his mother-in-law. "Meet Hillary's mom."
On the Senate floor, Reid was still laying out, in detail, his 10-point legislative agenda. When he yielded the floor after 30 minutes, only three senators remained, and the half-dozen spectators lingering in the public gallery included Reid's wife.
It was no Pelosi-Palooza -- and that didn't seem to bother the Senate majority leader one bit. "Don't worry about Harry Reid," Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) told reporters. "He'll be okay."