Reid: 'I Have My Eye on What I Need to Do'

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, shown talking to President Obama, admits he was dismissive when he first heard of the Illinois state senator.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, shown talking to President Obama, admits he was dismissive when he first heard of the Illinois state senator. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Bloomberg News)
By Chris Cillizza
Monday, May 4, 2009

The first time Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid heard the name "Barack Obama" was in the House gym. Former congressman Abner Mikva (D-Ill.) was bending Reid's ear, urging him to support the little-known state senator in a crowded 2004 primary.

"I wanted to laugh, but I didn't want to be impolite," Reid recalled recently in a conversation with The Fix. "I just put him off."

Obama won, and, over the intervening years, Reid realized the political talents possessed by the junior senator from Illinois. So impressed was he with Obama that Reid urged Obama to seek the presidency despite the presence of then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). Reid recounts that transformation and more in the epilogue to his autobiography "The Good Fight: Hard Lessons From Searchlight to Washington."

With Obama now in the White House, Reid said he is trying to balance his friendship with the president and his belief in the separation of power as outlined in the Constitution. "Before my relationship with him comes my feeling about where I feel the Constitution fits," Reid explained.

Reid, who drew headlines this year by insisting that Obama was not his boss, also must keep an eye on Nevada, where national Republicans are trying to find a top-tier candidate to knock him off.

He is mindful of what happened to former Senate leader Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota in 2004 when Republicans cast him as more beholden to Washington than his state, leading to his eventual defeat.

"I have heard all the people say they are going to take care of me like they did Tom Daschle," he said, adding, that, unlike red South Dakota, Nevada is a blue state.

Left unsaid is that Republicans have struggled to find a recruit to take on the Democratic leader. Rep. Dean Heller appears to be the best candidate still thinking about running, but it's unclear whether he will ultimately make the race.

Reid, often underestimated because of his low-key demeanor, is also one of the most calculating -- and effective -- politicians today. He bragged that during the two-week Easter break last month, he raised $1 million; he ended March with more than $5 million in the bank.

"One of the things people have to give me some credit for is I know how to count votes," Reid said. That trait was on display last week when he played a key role in luring Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to the Democratic side of the aisle, a coup that brings the party within spitting distance of a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority.

Reid described recruiting party-switchers as a "hobby of mine" and called his work in bringing then-Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont into the Democratic caucus as "one of the highlights of my career." He added that although he has been heavily criticized by the Democratic left for his willingness to keep Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) within the Democratic caucus after his apostasy during the 2008 election, that decision has been "extremely important for what we have been able to do with Barack Obama's agenda."

As Reid looks to the next 18 months -- time likely to be split between moving Obama's legislative priorities through the Senate and positioning himself for reelection -- the old political hand projects confidence. "I am going to work as hard as I can," he said. "I have my eye on what I need to do."

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