Less than a month into their newly elected leadership roles, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) already are confronting a vocal and prominent cast of Congressional Democratic presidential hopefuls who quickly are capturing the national spotlight.
And while many Congressional Democrats say publicly they have grown used to Members and Senators using Capitol Hill as a platform for White House runs, they privately acknowledge the early 2008 campaign could become a distraction, and the window will be narrow for Reid and Pelosi to drive the party agenda and set the tone in the early days of the 110th Congress.
“With the New Hampshire primary about a year away, we could be looking at only a few months before presidential interests completely over take party priorities,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide.
Reid and Pelosi assumed their majority slots on Jan. 4 after a sweeping November election gave Democrats control of Congress. After a dozen years in the minority — interrupted only by a short period of Senate control — Democrats are relishing the chance to steer Congressional priorities over the next two years.
But in recent days, the field of Congressional Democratic presidential hopefuls has swelled with the entries of high-profile candidates, Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).
Obama and Clinton joined a string of Democratic hopefuls including Sens. Joseph Biden (Del.), Chris Dodd (Conn.) and possibly John Kerry (D-Mass.).
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said the early primary season has “got to be a distraction” for the Senate leadership and “at times can be an annoyance,” but also said it can serve to help drive the debate and encourage discussions among political players.
The challenge for Reid and others, he said, is that presidential candidates can often redirect the tone and force leaders to respond to candidates’ ideas.
“Now they have to consider what others are saying,” Nelson said.
Even so, Democratic Senators said presidential politics is part of the Senate, and early primaries or not, the chamber always is a launching pad for White House candidates.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) acknowledged the presidential primary seems to come “earlier and earlier” each cycle, but added: “The Senate adjusts to that.
“It probably will affect the operation of the Senate from time to time on both sides of the aisle,” he said.
Reid appears content to let the nomination process play out with little or no interference.
A former Democratic leadership aide explained that Reid’s primary focus will be on maintaining the cohesion of his 51-seat majority rather than simply focusing on the presidential hopefuls.
“The truth is, it’s much harder to control the 51 than the few ’08ers,” this source said.
The source added, “The principal doesn’t have to worry about what the kids do on the street, he just has to make sure there is order in the school.”
Reid clearly has a heavier logistical burden than Pelosi, who heads the chamber where interest in the White House is slim.
So far, only Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) has hinted at launching another candidacy. Besides, with 435 Members serving in the House, the absence of a Member who is on the campaign trail is less of a problem.
But both leaders will have to work through the challenges of trying to move key pieces of legislation over the next two years, finding unity among Democrats and maintaining their roles as the party’s top voices.
What’s more, both Reid and Pelosi will undoubtedly be put in the sometimes-uncomfortable position of having to respond to Democratic presidential candidates’ platforms and positions.
Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman, said his boss recognizes “there are always presidential candidates in the Senate. There were in the past and there will be in the future. The fact is, under the rules of the Senate — presidential candidate or not — [Senators] can have a pretty significant influence on how the Senate operates.”
And Democratic leaders in both chambers said that neither Reid nor Pelosi is concerned that the candidates will steal their spotlight.
“As the first woman Speaker, there’s no question that she’s going to continue to receive a great deal of attention,” said Pelosi’s spokesman Brendan Daly. “We’ve had a very good first three weeks in office and that’s going to continue as we move forward.
“There are plenty of people who continue to serve as the face of the Democratic Party,” Manley added. “There’s plenty of limelighting to go around.”
Biden said 2008 isn’t all that different from previous presidential cycles, which typically draw a pool of prominent Democratic Senators to the field.
“We’ve been down there before,” Biden said. “I think we agree on 85 percent of the issues. The idea that it’s a distraction from the Senate” isn’t reality.
Biden has used the early days of the 110th Congress to stake out a prominent role on Bush’s call to increase troops in Iraq by 21,500. He is leading a bipartisan group of Senators introducing a resolution in opposition to the move, and in doing so, highlighting his foreign policy-oriented platform.
But Biden isn’t the only Senator eyeing the White House who is using the Iraq War as a key aspect of a White House run. Dodd, Clinton and Obama all have come out with individual proposals on how best to deal with the war and the proposal for a troop surge.
The positions on Iraq by Clinton and Obama in particular have led to rumblings that the two candidates are embroiled in a bitter rivalry for frontrunner status.
Most Democrats dispute suggestions that the two are personal adversaries, but they acknowledge that the under-the-Dome campaign is sending a signal that their campaigns could present a headache for leadership down the road.
“The danger and difficulty for Democratic leaders is that the press makes it seem like what Democrats are and think is what those two are saying or not saying,” said a senior Democratic House aide. “What we actually do gets lost in the shuffle.”
Democratic leadership sources say that while much of the attention of late is on the presidential candidates, they expect the spotlight will dim following the president’s State of the Union address and after Congress votes on various resolutions opposing his Iraq plan.
That gives Democrats a chance to push through additional legislative items before next January, the official kickoff of the 2008 presidential primary.
“It will die down,” said a senior Democratic aide.
John Stanton contributed to this report.