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Republicans Revel in Historic Gains

Reid Claims Votes for Leader

Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared victory Wednesday in his bid to replace Sen. Tom Daschle as Minority Leader, securing the post less than 12 hours after the South Dakotan’s historic defeat.

President Bush and Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) both placed calls to Reid to congratulate him after the Nevadan confidently pronounced that he had enough support from his colleagues to lead the Democratic Caucus in the 109th Congress.

“I have enough votes that I will be the leader,” Reid said in a Wednesday evening interview.

Reid and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who seriously considered challenging the Nevada Senator for the top Democratic post, aggressively worked the telephones throughout the day seeking to shore up support from colleagues for their respective candidacies. Dodd sidestepped the potentially divisive leadership battle late in the afternoon and announced he instead would support Reid. No other Democrat entered the race, paving the way for Reid to succeed Daschle when the 109th Congress convenes next year.

Dodd told reporters he made the decision to forgo a bid because he feared it would be “very harmful for our party at this juncture.”

“Looking around and getting into a contest with Harry didn’t make any sense to me,” said Dodd, who issued a warning to his Senate colleagues that maintaining the status quo would mean irreparable harm to the Democratic Party.

“If it is going to be as business as usual then we are going to be in trouble,” Dodd said.

Democrats lost five open seats in the South in addition to Daschle’s defeat Tuesday, which were only partially offset by pickups in Colorado and Illinois.

Reid said while Bush understands that he opposes many of his administration’s policies, the Nevadan still pledged to work in good faith with the president over the next two years.

“I am going to do everything I can to make it as smooth as I can,” Reid said. He described his five-minute conversation with Bush as “very warm. I appreciated his call,” he said.

Reid must now go to work to build his own leadership team and define his style, which he vowed would be different from that of his predecessor.

“Tom Daschle and I have been friends for 22 years,” Reid said. “He is like a brother to me. But having said that, I am not Tom Daschle. I am Harry Reid and I have my own leadership style and I am going to be Harry Reid, not Tom Daschle.”

Reid’s move to Minority Leader opens the door for another leadership race to take place to fill his position as Minority Whip. Sens. Byron Dorgan (N.D.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.) are both said to be interested in the Whip position, but others might also enter the contest. Dorgan currently serves as the chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee; Durbin is the Assistant Floor Leader.

As of late Wednesday Durbin was moving quickly to try to line up enough votes to secure the Minority Whip post, according to numerous sources on Capitol Hill and K Street.

Many party insiders said they viewed the Whip’s race as likely to boil down to a decision based on who could best complement Reid — with Durbin viewed as someone providing more geographic and political balance than Dorgan.

Durbin’s office would not comment on his candidacy but acknowledged he is reaching out to his colleagues to determine the direction of Caucus leadership. “He’s talking to different people in the Caucus today about what they want to see the Democratic Caucus do, how they want to move it forward and getting the best advice on how the Caucus can do that,” said Joe Shoemaker, Durbin’s spokesman.

Some view Dorgan as someone who would often have to worry about his own political standing back in conservative tilting North Dakota, where he easily won another term Tuesday but is always a potential GOP target.

Durbin is politically secure in Illinois and more in line with the liberal wing of the party, but he also can deliver a sharp rhetorical jab in the give-and-take of political talk shows, something considered a weakness of Reid’s.

Caucus liberals were outraged when Dorgan last fall voted in favor of Republican-backed plans to overhaul Medicare and national energy policy. But Dorgan enjoys strong support from centrists within the Caucus, who are expected to try to gain more influence in the wake of this year’s election losses. A Democratic insider said Dorgan is expected to make the race.

There is also some concern from liberal Democrats that Reid’s opposition to abortion rights is at odds with a basic party principle.

“How do you have a Democratic leader who is not 100 percent pro-choice?” asked a senior aide to a Democratic lawmaker. But Reid said he has the support of prominent pro-abortion rights activists such as Kate Michelman, the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

“One of the calls I had today was from someone I care a great deal about, Kate Michelman,” he said. “We worked well together and she is someone I have a great deal of affection for. Kate Michelman is not worried, so I don’t think anyone else should,” he said.

This is not the first time Reid and Dodd almost squared off to succeed Daschle.

Both took steps toward running for Democratic leader in December 2002 when Daschle seriously considered running for the Democratic presidential nomination and weighed whether to step down from his post. Daschle would later decide to pass on a run for the White House in order to seek re-election to the Senate. He lost to former Rep. John Thune Tuesday by a 2-point margin, 51 percent to 49 percent, in the most watched Senate race of the 2004 election cycle.

At the time, Reid’s aides made a similar declaration, saying that 35 Democratic Senators had pledged to vote for him to be the next Democratic leader if Daschle stepped down. Dodd’s spokesman countered that the Connecticut Democrat had been approached by some colleagues urging him to consider the race if Daschle vacated the post.