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Caucus Stands by Reid

No Desertions Over Remarks

Despite persistent attacks from the White House and Congressional Republicans over his stance on the Iraq War, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has continued to enjoy strong support from his colleagues and has kept his ideologically diverse Senate Democratic Caucus together even as his House counterparts have struggled to do so.

Leadership aides and Democratic lawmakers argue that despite Reid’s often confrontational approach to the war — including his recent declaration that the war is “lost” — at this point there is little indication that even conservative members of the Caucus are chafing under his leadership.

“Nothing he’s done could be seen as radical” under normal circumstances, one aide argued, maintaining that it has taken on that appearance only because “for five years Congress has given the White House what it wants” and there has been little public debate over the war.

“Everything he’s done policy-wise and legislation-wise, has been able to bring together the Caucus, whether it’s a [Nebraska Sen.] Ben Nelson to a [California Sen.] Barbara Boxer,” one leadership aide said.

Democrats point out that Reid took several weeks to bring his Caucus along politically to the point where all members could agree to a basic set of legislative principles setting benchmarks for the Iraqi government and the U.S. military, as well as a “goal” of redeploying troops by next spring. One aide said Reid worked closely with Nelson as well as more liberal lawmakers like Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) to ensure the two wings of his party were comfortable.

“Everybody understands that this is a process of putting pressure on the administration to change direction,” a Reid aide said, explaining that this has helped make the needed compromises between conservative and liberal Democrats much easier to make.

“I think Harry’s done a good job of bringing the Caucus together,” one Democratic lawmaker said, arguing that Reid’s time as Whip and now as Majority Leader has helped him develop significant reservoirs of loyalty within the Caucus.

A second Democrat agreed, saying that Reid has done a good job of overcoming the initial differences between the two wings of the party to develop a consensus position. This Senator also argued that a lack of flexibility among Congressional Republicans and the White House on the future of the Iraq War has been a major contributor to the Democratic Caucus’ unity.

Democrats said it appeared Reid had suffered little if any damage from declaring the war as lost last week, saying his larger argument that Bush’s approach is a dead end is an accurate reflection of the Caucus’ position. The “larger point is that there is no military solution, there is only a political solution,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Friday, adding that the surge has been a “failure in terms of achieving what its goal needs to be, which is a political solution. I think that’s what the surge’s stated purpose is and I don’t think its achieving that goal.”

Privately, Democrats said that while Reid’s comments may not get ringing endorsements from his colleagues, there is an understanding that his increasingly tough rhetoric is driven by a personal conviction.

According to aides close to Reid, following a trip to Walter Reed Army Medical Center several weeks ago, the Majority Leader’s view of the war was altered. After visiting with injured soldiers, Reid “decided it wasn’t worth having anymore men and women come home injured.”

In an interview with CNN on Monday, Reid defended his comments, saying “I do what I think is right, and I think this war is headed in the wrong direction … and I’m going to speak out as often and as regularly as I can.”

Democrats point to a number of reasons why Reid has been able to avoid divisions similar to those in the House, which have made shepherding the supplemental appropriations bill much more difficult for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

One key factor is while Pelosi, as the first female Speaker of the House and leader of the much ballyhooed Democratic takeover the chamber, enjoys a significant national profile, Reid has thus far flown under the radar. Additionally, Pelosi makes a much more obvious target for Republicans, who can use her roots in California’s liberal Bay Area to tar her with prerogative labels like “San Francisco Values.”

Reid, on the other hand, is much more low-key, and his rural Nevada roots, Mormon faith and often conservative positions — he personally opposes abortion and is a strong defender of gun rights — shield him from broad-brush charges of being too far to the left.

Another key factor has been the timing of some of Reid’s more incendiary comments. For instance, his decision to declare the war lost came during the same week that the nation was faced with the massacre at Virginia Tech, an event that overshadowed most other news. Democratic aides in the Senate acknowledge that the pressure felt by rank-and-file Members to distance themselves could have been much greater if Reid’s comments had been given more play in the press.