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Reid Steps to Forefront

Incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) is planning to restructure his Democratic leadership team, focusing on a rapid-response operation aimed at promoting the Democratic agenda and countering Republican policy goals.

In a comprehensive interview, Reid described the reorganization as “a work in progress,” and acknowledged Democrats will need to pick their legislative fights with President Bush and Congressional Republicans carefully in the 109th Congress.

“We feel that we have an obligation to the country to work with the president,” Reid said. “We have not given up on any principles that we have as a party. We are going to dance when necessary and fight when appropriate.”

Flanked by his two newly elected deputies, incoming Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and incoming Secretary Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Reid repeated this theme again at a news conference yesterday, shortly after the trio was unanimously elected by their Democratic colleagues to lead the Caucus for the next two years.

“Even though we want to work together, and we will do that, we also understand that we are in the United States Senate, and constitutionally we’re empowered to represent the American people,” Reid said.

The Nevadan will replace Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who lost his re-election bid earlier this month to former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.). Reid said he will not formally assume his new position until the curtain drops on the 108th Congress in deference to Daschle. The Nevadan currently serves as the Minority Whip, the second highest ranking post in the caucus.

“Until we finish the session, Tom Daschle is leader,” Reid said in the interview.

But it is clear the Democratic Caucus is trying to move past the disastrous November elections that saw Republicans sweep the South, defeat Daschle and pick up a net of four seats in the chamber. Behind closed doors, Reid is working to assemble his own leadership staff.

Reid said in the interview that he plans to keep the leadership team centralized, much in the same way Daschle oversaw his leadership operation. The creation of a “war room” similar to the rapid-fire policy shops within presidential campaigns is likely to be established, as is a concerted effort to reconnect with rural voters who tend to reside in so-called “red states,” Democratic sources said.

In addition to the restructuring, Reid pledged to share the media spotlight with his Democratic colleagues, a medium he notes is not his strongest suit.

“You know successful leaders don’t have to be rock stars,” Reid said, adding that his camera shyness is overstated. “I’ve done all that stuff in the past and I will continue to do that.

“We have tremendously good people in the Senate on the Democrat side, who I will lateral the ball to on many occasions,” he added, singling out Durbin, Stabenow and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the high-profile chairwoman of the Steering and Coordination Committee, as likely spokespeople for the Caucus.

At the news conference, Reid said he expected failed Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), will “find his own role” in the Caucus, describing him as “not a shrinking violet.”

“We are looking for John Kerry to find what he wants to do,” Reid said. “We are sorry that he’s not in the White House, but we’re glad that he’s back on Capitol Hill.”

It was apparent that Reid is serious about asserting his authority as Minority Leader. He was the only person to speak and field questions at the news conference yesterday and sought to emphasize his credentials to convince any skeptics he is qualified for the job.

“I’m not an untested vessel,” he told reporters. “I’ve been in the Senate for 18 years. I served for six years a Senator Daschle’s assistant. And I think my record speaks for itself on the Senate floor.”

At the organizational meeting held in the Old Senate Chamber, Reid was nominated by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) in a vote that had become academic after the Nevadan locked in the support of a majority of his colleagues following Daschle’s defeat. The tandem of Byrd and Nelson nominating Reid was symbolic because it demonstrated liberals such as Byrd and conservatives including Nelson felt comfortable with Reid as the Democratic leader.

“I think you have to say that Harry is the kind of person who has an acceptable manner of dealing with people,” Nelson said in an interview. “But everybody knows that inside the comfortable exterior is a spine of steel, of conviction that will bend a bit but it is not going to break.

“It will make it possible for him on behalf of the Caucus to oppose when necessary, compromise when possible and avoid the obstructionist label,” Nelson added.

Republicans credit the “obstructionist” label with helping to convince voters to turn Daschle out of office and add to their Senate majority by delivering open Democratic seats in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina to the GOP.

One of the most pressing problems for Reid will be to keep a politically fractured Caucus from further fissures in the wake of the November elections. Conservative and liberal Democrats are expected to try to gain influence over the direction of the Caucus as it works toward the goal of winning back the six seats it needs to retake the Senate majority.

Reid suggested this anticipated struggle has been “magnified way out of proportion” and said the Caucus message will continue to reflect the core beliefs of the Democratic Party.

“Our conference is diverse and we are not going to go to the left [or] to the right,” he said in the interview. “We are going to continue being what we are.”

Even though they hail from different wings of the party and regions of the country, the party’s two newcomers, Barack Obama (Ill.) and Ken Salazar (Colo.), both cited Reid’s mental toughness as the most important attribute for the new leader.

Noting the “combination of toughness and openness,” Obama called Reid “very steady and very confident.”

Salazar, who comes from a rural region and campaigned as a conservative Democrat, said he appreciated that a Westerner would be leader, noting Reid’s upbringing in the small mining town of Searchlight, Nev.

But that background in no way meant Reid would let Republicans stampede over him, Salazar said. “He recognizes very much the history of the Senate and the power of the Senate.”

Without offering specifics, Reid said that health care will be the Democratic Caucus’ first priority in the new Congress. Reid acknowledged he must work closely with the GOP leadership for the Senate to move forward on any legislative front, and noted that he has a strong working relationship with Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). But Reid is not as close to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who he criticized as “wrong and selfish” for breaking with Senate tradition to campaign in South Dakota against Daschle.

“Senator Frist knows how I feel about it,” Reid said in the interview. “And I’m going to work with him now. I am going to do my best.”

Reid cited Byrd and the late Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) as two Democratic leaders he admired, and described Daschle as a brother. But Reid made it clear he expects to carve out his own leadership style.

“I told all the Senators that I talked with, asking them about this job, I told them, ‘You know my relationship with Tom Daschle. Tom Daschle is like a brother and I’m not Tom Daschle. I am Harry Reid, and I will naturally do things differently than Tom.’ I’m just going to be myself,” he said.

Still, Reid said even though Daschle is leaving the chamber he expected to continue to seek his advice and counsel next year.

“Tom Daschle is going to continue to be a confidant of mine for as long as we are both still alive,” Reid said.

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