Analysis: Senate Dem leader

By CHRISTIAN BOURGE, UPI Congressional and Policy Correspondent  |  Dec. 14, 2004 at 5:19 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 14 (UPI) -- In the month since being elected the Senate minority leader for the next Congress, Harry Reid has quickly brushed aside Republican hopes of completely sidelining Democrats on Capitol Hill by showing the tough-as-nails political animal that lies behind the demure senator.

From the get-go of his election to be the new leader of Senate Democrats and de-facto leader of Washington Democrats as their most powerful elected official, the low-key moderate Nevadan has been outspoken and on the defensive about the role his party will play in the coming Congress when it begins in January.

"What the majority of the Senate needs to understand is that they will not be in the majority forever," Reid told reporters after being officially elected to the position Nov. 16, having shored up support for the position the day after the Nov. 2 defeat of outgoing Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

The comments helped put into context the post-election hubris of congressional Republicans, at least in the face of the ideal Reid clearly hopes to reach for his party in the face of tough odds.

Just a day prior to Reid's election to the post, outgoing Republican Senatorial Campaign Chairman Sen. George Allen of Virginia was dismissive of the chance for Democrats to successfully revolt against GOP control in the next Congress.

He echoed the sort of attacks that have become the norm from Republicans regarding Democratic efforts to exert what little control they have in the Senate, arguing that the public no longer finds "petty partisan delays" appropriate.

Allen's comments alluded to the "obstructionist" label Republicans have affixed the Democrats for blocking some GOP legislation and 10 of President Bush's nominees for the federal bench.

"I think what we will find is that the Democrats will be more cooperative," Allen told reporters.

But all signs point to Allen's confidence being displaced, at least if Reid's actions continue to match his rhetoric -- and they have so far.

Reid, who is 65 this month, officially takes over the caucus in January and at a difficult time for Democrats, who face a strengthened 55-to-44 (with one Democrat-leaning independent) Republican majority in the Senate and emboldened GOP control of the House and White House.

The fact that the more liberal and outspoken Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois will replace Reid as the Democratic Whip, the No. 2 leadership post in the caucus, was initially viewed by some as a sign that Reid would be a more behind-the-scenes leader.

However, since then it has become clear that Reid is not likely take a closed-door role as leader.

Since mid-November, he has upped his rhetoric and warnings to the GOP amidst Republican efforts to dissuade Democrats from asserting the limited power they can muster in the minority, mostly through the use of the Senate's Byzantine rules system that effectively gives any senator the power to shut down the body at his or her discretion.

Reid has already shown his willingness to show his teeth as head of his caucus, using a block of administration appointments to gain the appointment of one of his top staff members by President Bush to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Reid also took a shot across the bow in possible fights over Supreme Court nominees in Bush's second term, attacking Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas -- a potential replacement as chief justice for the ailing William Rehnquist -- for his "poorly written opinions."

"I just don't think that he's done a good job as a Supreme Court justice," Reid said on NBC's Dec. 5 "Meet the Press," also noting that he could support Justice Antonin Scalia for the post.

Despite the harsh words, Reid has reportedly called on his Democratic colleagues to delay harsh criticisms of a nominee for the Supreme Court, should they be announced during December, delaying the political fireworks for when it could really count, during the nomination process after lawmakers return to session in January.

Reid's initial rhetoric spells trouble for Republicans hoping their warnings to Democrats to back off further attempts to filibuster Bush's judicial nominees will tempter efforts in that regard.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has repeatedly cautioned his Democratic colleagues since the elections not to continue obstructionist tactics on judicial nominees.

Even though Bush has had the vast majority of his nominees to the federal bench approved by the Senate, Democrats have blocked 10 of them, angering Republicans, particularly conservatives.

One response under discussion is a GOP-backed effort to reduce the number of votes needed to override the filibuster of judicial nominees from 60 to 51.

This so-called nuclear option is considered a last resort by most, one that is sure to only further derail the legislative process in the Senate and fuel partisan rancor.

If taken, the move is sure to lead Democrats to retaliate, potentially by shutting down the body using Senate procedure.

Signs of the sort of partisan rancor that has defined the current Congress are already on display with Reid joined by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., Monday in announcing plans for unofficial oversight hearings on the Bush administration next year.

Dorgan, chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, presided over eight hearings on executive-branch matters in the 108th Congress, citing unwillingness of Republicans to conduct constitutionally mandated oversight of the Bush administration.

Beyond the rhetoric and initial attempts to assert his limited power, some hints at Reid's toughness can be found in his 6-year stint as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission starting in the late 1970s, an era when organized crime still controlled casinos in Las Vegas.

Exonerated in an FBI probe of whether Reid has ties to the mob during the period, there was reportedly an attempt on the senator's life when he ran the commission.

Although poetically tough, Reid does remain a somewhat strange, yet politically smart choice to lead the Senate Democrats at a time when several party moderates are leaving office and the caucus is destined to reflect an overall more liberal-minded political view than it has in years.

The choice of Reid as leader is a cunning one in that it could help Democrats fight off the often-repeated Republican putdown of Democrats as out-of-touch liberals, given that his own anti-abortion, anti-gun-control and other conservative stances that stand in opposition to traditional Democratic party dogma.

Born in Searchlight, Nev., the son of a hard-rock miner, Reid has also been a longtime defender of mining interests to the dismay of some environmentalists.

Nevertheless, the moderate senator has opposed and helped block Bush's most conservative nominees for the federal bench along with various Republican measures, including ones aimed at limiting corporate and physician liability.

Reid has also come out against creating private investment accounts under Social Security, a main goal of the Bush administration in the first year of the president's second term, promising vigorous Democratic opposition for it along with the proposed constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage.

He has also pegged one of Bush's two signature domestic-policy achievements, the No Child Left Behind education-reform program, "a disaster."

Just how these seemingly conflicting policy stances will play in his role as leader in the face of the GOP agenda remain to be seen, but Reid proved as minority whip that his personal views and party needs can coexist, often putting party interests above his personal politics.

For instance, he was credited with helping persuade Jim Jeffords to leave the GOP and become an Independent who votes with the Democratic Party by surrendering his right to head the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for the Vermont senator.

As the leader of the Democratic maneuvering on the Senate floor, Reid proved that he can easily handle the arcane rules of the body.

His resolve was on display earlier this year when he spoke for 8 1/2 hours on the Senate floor about GOP plans to spend 30 hours highlighting four judicial nominees blocked by Democrats.

"We cannot be taken for granted," Reid said during his soliloquy. "We cannot be thought of as nothing."

It remains to be see if Democrats will be little more than just the snipping opposition in the Senate next year, but Reid clearly intends to make sure they have real impact, even if only to slow the GOP onslaught.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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