By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 11, 2010; A03
Republicans moved Sunday to draw attention to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid's racially tinged remarks about Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential race, with leading officials calling for him to step down and Democrats standing behind him.
The Republican National Committee's chairman, Michael Steele, said Reid (D-Nev.) should vacate his office after acknowledging that he had described then-Sen. Obama as "light-skinned" and possessing "no Negro dialect" in a private conversation with two reporters. The reporters recounted the remarks in their book, to be released Tuesday.
"There is this standard where Democrats feel that they can say these things and they can apologize when it comes from the mouths of their own," Steele, who is black, said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday." "But if it comes from anyone else, it is racism."
Steele compared Reid's comments about Obama to remarks made in 2002 by then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Lott, at a birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), said that "all these problems" might not have occurred if Thurmond had been elected president when he ran in 1948. Thurmond ran as a segregationist.
Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the Senate's second-ranking Republican, drew a similar comparison on "Fox News Sunday."
"If [Lott] should resign, then Harry Reid should," Kyl said.
The Democratic Party chairman, Timothy M. Kaine, said on Fox that Reid's remarks "clearly were in the context of praising" Obama, and that there is no need for the Senate leader to resign. "The important thing is the president right away said, 'This is a closed book,' " Kaine said.
Unlike Lott, Reid immediately apologized for his remarks and received a strong statement of support from the president. Obama, in a statement released Saturday, said that he accepted Reid's apology and that "the book is closed" on the matter.
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, speaking Sunday on Fox, said Lott came under the most pressure to give up his leadership post from President George W. Bush, a Republican, rather than from Democrats. The Lott and Reid episodes have "totally different context," he said. Reid also spent much of Saturday reaching out to black leaders and fellow senators to try to minimize the damage from his remarks.
The Rev. Al Sharpton issued a statement on Saturday afternoon in support of Reid. "While there is no question that Senator Reid did not select the best word choice in this instance, these comments should not distract America from its continued focus on securing health care or creating jobs for its people," he said.
And Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.) said that "like President Barack Obama, African Americans are likely to accept Majority Leader Reid's apology for an obvious reason. He has earned it."
Whether Reid stays on as leader -- and conventional wisdom suggests he will -- even Democrats acknowledge privately that he has done his reelection campaign, which was in somewhat dire straits, no favors.
Steele, appearing on "Meet the Press," said that "whether [Reid] steps down today -- or I retire him in November, either way, he will not be the leader in 2011."
The senator is "absolutely running for reelection," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley, adding: "Nevadans are facing challenging times, and they need the majority leader fighting for them to create jobs and get the economy back on track."
Steele, in his remarks on "Fox News Sunday," reiterated that he has no plans to step aside -- even after a week of Republican Party squabbles caused by the release of his book charting a new way forward for the GOP.
The controversy over the book, which leaders in Congress said they had not been made aware of before its publication, came days after Steele had angered many Republican officials by saying he didn't think the party could win back the House.
Steele received a boost from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during an interview on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday morning. "I have confidence in Michael Steele," McCain said.