Unlikely Leader For Senate Dems

harry reid
By David Paul Kuhn,
CBSNews.com chief political writer

Sen. Harry Reid was juggling. He wouldn't speak out against Roe vs. Wade, but he opposes abortion, except in extreme cases. He'll take Antonin Scalia but not Clarence Thomas to head the Supreme Court. (He calls Thomas "an embarrassment," his opinions "poorly written.") He'd "vigorously oppose the privatization of Social Security" but will accept some reform.

The mild-mannered Nevada senator made his national debut as the new Democratic minority leader Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." He sounded off on the direction he hopes to take his increasingly marginalized party: Look center court.

For six years, Reid was the Democrats' number two in the Senate. Come January, the 65-year-old will be number one. He insists his party has no footing to fight from the left.

"We have to work toward the middle," he said on NBC.

Unlike his predecessor, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Reid is not leading the Democrats in a split Senate. His caucus numbers at just 44. Democrats have not been so weak in the Senate since the Great Depression. For a party in need of a standard bearer, Reid was a telling selection.

Reid earned the post because he was next in line. But just as pertinent, he was chosen to lead the Democrats because he doesn't seem like one. He opposes gun control; he's a Mormon who only approves of abortion in the case of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

"He is a move to the center" for the Democrats, said Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute for Legislative Studies at the University of Illinois. "There's also the idiosyncratic aspect of this; who is available, who wants to do it, who has the votes. There was no strong person to step into Daschle's role, there was no heir apparent."

Reid is now the new Daschle, hoping not to get dashed like the old one, who lost his Senate seat on Nov. 2. A former boxer, Reid told "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert that if he's punched, he'll punch back. But there is every indication Reid will be more boxer than slugger.

Last week, Reid announced he was setting up a War Room to combat the Republican message machine. Little more than a room of phones and Democratic policy quick draws, Reid prepared there for his Russert interview as early as Wednesday night.

Reid is used to hardball. He put himself through law school as a Capitol Hill cop working nights. When he was head of the Nevada Gaming Commission the mob tried to bomb his wife's car. So Washington politics was no sweat.

As Republicans pushed to pass intelligence reform last week, by satisfying their caucus and ignoring Democrats, Reid went on the offensive.

"Senate Democrats are prepared to stay in session as long as it takes to pass this critical legislation that will make our country safer, and I hope Republicans will join me," Reid said in a statement.

"It is beyond irresponsible to let petty Republican power grabs from a handful of members stop passage of such an important bill," he added.
Sunday, in a letter to President Bush, he emphasized the advice aspect to the Advise and Consent Clause in the Constitution, regarding Supreme Court nominees.

"This shared power need not be a source of friction between the President and the minority party in the Senate," he wrote.

"Democrats were aggrieved by the failure of Senate Republicans to act on over sixty judicial nominations of President Clinton between 1995 and 2000, and Republicans have expressed dismay over Democratic objections to 10 of your nominees in the past four years," Reid continued.

But on judicial nominees, Reid may lose the only material voice the minority party has in the Senate. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., says the use of the filibuster to stall judicial nominations is "intolerable" and that a "viable option" would be for Republicans to disallow the tactic by changing the Senate rules.

Reid vehemently opposes this action. If the Senate rules were changed to confirm judicial appointments by a simple up-or-down vote, requiring 51 senators, instead of a super majority of 60, Democrats would lose their only voice on judicial nominees.

But Reid has long-term concerns as well. As minority leader, the future of the party is paramount. All legislative moves are seen through the lens of 2006, when Democrats will be forced to defend 17 of the 33 seats up for grabs.

Having just won his fourth term last month, Reid's seat is secure. But his stewardship over the next two years will determine if he becomes a standard bearer or a caretaker until the next Democratic leader takes the post.

"After '96, when [Newt] Gingrich was out, there was the thought that the person was a little too extreme, let's move toward the center, maybe a caretaker, because there was no obvious successor to Gingrich," Mooney said.

"There was no obvious successor to Daschle. There was a thought that maybe [Republican House Speaker Dennis] Hastert would be a one-term speaker but he served his members well and survived. The same thing may happen to Reid."