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Despite Majority, Senate Leader Has Rough Start

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) hoped his party would come out of the gates hot this year, but this wasn't what he had in mind.

Trying to unveil his 10 most important pieces of legislation yesterday, Reid instead found himself under fire for his handling of the appointment of former Illinois attorney general Roland W. Burris to fill the Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama. After Reid batted aside yet another question about his decision to back off his opposition to Burris's seating in the chamber, an aide barked out, "Last question." Finally, from the back of the press scrum, came a query about the agenda.

"Oh, great question," Reid said with relief, his voice hoarse and face flushed, presumably from the fever he'd been running all week.

This was supposed to be a year of triumphs for Reid. Bolstered by the addition of at least seven Democrats to his caucus and an incoming Democratic president, Reid enjoys a stronger hand than any Senate leader in almost 30 years. But since Obama won the election and the Democratic caucus grew to a minimum of 57 seats, with two more likely joining him soon, Reid has endured a series of stumbles that demonstrated the limitations of his newly expanded powers.

There is little question that some of Reid's problems are of his own making, a product of his shoot-from-the-hip style and penchant for bold declarations that do not always pan out. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), despite the impeachment and legal proceedings he faces and over the objections of Obama and Reid, selected Burris to fill the final two years of Obama's Senate term. After unequivocally opposing Burris's selection, Reid backtracked yesterday amid a minor revolt from his Democratic colleagues and laid out a path for his appointment.

But Reid brushes aside the critics, pointing to the electoral successes his caucus has enjoyed in the four years since he took over as a minority leader with 45 seats and a GOP president attempting to privatize Social Security.

"I've got 59 senators now, so I'm not doing too bad," he said in an interview yesterday.

The only complaints he has heard, Reid said, are from Democrats who are now crowded together on their side of the Senate chamber. The Democratic majority is now robust enough that, in a move that was infused with unintentional symbolism, Democrats moved their regular meetings from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Room into the more spacious Mike Mansfield Room, named after the Democratic leader from 1961 to 1976. While Reid's gruff talk opposing President Bush may evoke the tough persona Johnson embodied as majority leader, Reid is more comfortable playing a behind-the-scenes role, cutting deals to implement Obama's agenda in much the same manner that Mansfield (D-Mont.) shepherded expansive civil rights and environmental legislation into law.

"I'm more Mike Mansfield. I'm not LBJ -- I don't twist arms," he said.

Reid is the successor to a series of Senate majority leaders who have faced rocky paths. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) retired in 2006 after a four-year stint left him so unpopular that he aborted plans to run for president. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), the majority leader in 2001 and 2002, lost his Senate seat in 2004 after his state's voters felt he tilted too far to the left in serving as party leader. And Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who rode herd on the chamber from 1996 to 2001, was on the verge of reclaiming the title of majority leader when his notoriously garrulous nature led him to praise the late Strom Thurmond's segregationist 1948 presidential campaign.

Republicans have already sent warnings that, despite their diminished numbers, they can still make life miserable for Reid with ranks big enough to mount filibusters. "He has the toughest job here, no matter what the numbers are," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a self-appointed conservative watchdog who calls himself Reid's "pea under the mattress."

With the nation in a deep recession, Democrats chose a low-profile federal lands bill as their first piece of legislation of the year, a package of more than 160 separate bills that Coburn has single-handedly held up for a year or more with procedural maneuvers.

Tired of negotiating with Coburn, Reid issued another threat yesterday and vowed to hold weekend votes, a common tactic for Senate leaders but not one generally issued on the second legislative day of the year. "People who are United States senators should cancel their travel plans this weekend," Reid said on the Senate floor.

It's unclear whether he will follow through on the threat, given that Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be among five current senators leaving on a trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Regardless, Reid remains immensely popular with his Democratic colleagues. A former Capitol Police officer, Reid has taken on the tough jobs many never wanted, including ethics committee chairman and whip. He led the fight against Bush's Social Security plan, calling the president a "loser" and a "liar" in the process, comments that made him a frequent target of White House criticism.

"He's willing to take the barbs, the arrows and the slings and still carry on. When he wants to get a job done, he'll get it done," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who ranks Reid "very high" among the eight majority leaders he has seen in 24 years.

But the Burris situation has been an unwelcome diversion from what should have been a triumphant opening of the Senate, given the Democratic gains and Obama's pending inauguration.

After Blagojevich's arrest, Reid gathered the signatures of all 50 members of the current Democratic caucus who served in the last Congress and demanded the governor's resignation, saying they would consider blocking any Blagojevich appointment because federal prosecutors alleged he was trying to sell the Obama seat for his own financial gain.

Following Burris's selection, Reid and his leadership team issued a statement saying anyone appointed by Blagojevich "cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated."

But Democrats balked at the suggestion that they would block Burris, who has no apparent connection to Blagojevich's scandals. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the outgoing chairman of the Rules Committee, said her constitutional review showed the Senate had no ability to deny Burris the seat so long as he was not connected to the Illinois scandal. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said that he called Reid last week to tell him that if Illinois officials signed off, "we have to seat him."

Asked if this was how he had expected to start the new year, Reid bellowed, "No!"

"It's certainly been a diversion," he said. "A lot of time has been devoted to that. But I don't think it's kept us from the other things."

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