Senate Leader Becomes Chief Critic of Bush

"I know you're going to come after us," Sen. Harry M. Reid recalled telling the president. "We'll go sound bite to sound bite with you." (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) accused President Bush this week of living in a "state of denial," of having ignored warnings from military leaders about his Iraq strategy, and of becoming "isolated" and "obstinate" as public support for the war dwindled.

That sharp blast came from an unlikely source. When Democrats took over Congress in January, it was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- a staunch antiwar liberal from San Francisco -- who was expected to emerge as the new majority's lead spokesperson on Iraq. Instead, the role is being filled by Reid, a quirky Senate insider who voted to authorize the Iraq invasion in 2002 and backed the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"I'm not some kind of pacifist," the former boxer and Las Vegas lawyer said Monday. "But unless we change course, the future is bleak."

Reid's provocations have been carefully calculated, an attempt by Democrats to force Bush to play defense during a week of heated partisan confrontation over Iraq. The House is expected to vote today and the Senate tomorrow on a war-spending bill that sets an Oct. 1 deadline for beginning troop withdrawals. Bush is certain to respond with the second veto of his presidency.

At a White House meeting last week, Reid said he warned Bush that the tone could get a little rough. "I know you're going to come after us," Reid recalled saying to Bush. "We'll go sound bite to sound bite with you."

Vice President Cheney took a rare trip to the microphones yesterday after lunch with Senate Republicans to call Reid's comments on Iraq "uninformed and misleading" and to accuse the majority leader of "defeatism." The Republican National Committee unveiled a radio ad yesterday for the Las Vegas and Reno markets that features an Army captain accusing Reid of turning Iraq into a "political football."

Opinions are mixed as to whether Reid's assertiveness helps or hurts his party. Voters strongly oppose the war, but are less sure about how and when the United States should leave Iraq. The rhetoric has elevated the debate over the conflict into a showdown between Reid and Bush, but it also has helped to mask Republican divisions over Iraq, along with concerns about the war's potential long-term damage to the GOP. In a closed-door meeting, Reid acknowledged that he had a target on his back, and Democratic senators responded with a standing ovation.

After the lunch, Reid delivered more of the same in response to Cheney, saying: "I'm not going to get into a name-calling match with somebody who has a 9 percent approval rating."

Reid's visibility on the issue is a departure from the backroom style he employed as Senate minority leader in the last Congress. Long known for his folksy aphorisms and awkward speaking style, Reid preferred to cede the spotlight to colleagues. That made him popular internally but gave him little experience with one of the more delicate responsibilities of leadership: public relations.

"Majority leader is a highly visible position," said David Rohde, a Duke University political scientist. "He's not just talking to the people of Nevada, or the Democrats in the Senate. He's not just talking the president. He's talking to the world."

Privately, White House aides have made no secret of their frustration and puzzlement with Reid and are surprised that he has emerged as a more aggressive opponent than Pelosi. But they also see an opportunity to score points by painting him as a defeatist.

"He's in denial about the enemy that we face. . . . He is in denial about the conflict that we are in. . . . He also is in denial [about] a surrender date he thinks is a good idea," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in an unusually long response to Reid's "state of denial" remark.

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