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Democrats Rally to Reid at Retreat

NEW YORK — With their leader under attack from Republicans for his harsh criticism of President Bush’s prosecution of the Iraq War, Senate Democrats gathered in New York City for a two-day retreat to discuss foreign policy and domestic issues while sounding a note of support for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

During a morning press conference at a midtown hotel Friday, Democratic Caucus leaders praised Reid’s leadership on Iraq and credited him with putting together the bipartisan deal that helped move a war supplemental including dates for the start of a redeployment of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who also serves as Caucus vice chairman, praised Reid as a leader “every member of our Caucus truly believes in” and credited Reid with moving the supplemental. “It was really done more by Harry Reid than any other person,” Schumer said.

Schumer’s praise came the same day that The Washington Post published a letter signed by all 50 members of the Democratic Caucus in response to a harshly critical opinion piece by columnist David Broder, in which Broder compared Reid’s penchant for aggressive rhetoric to the travails of embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. In the highly unusual letter, Democrats hailed Reid’s leadership, saying that he has “effectively guided the new Democratic majority through these first few months with skill and aplomb.” They also dismissed charges that his recent claims that the war is “lost” have divided the party.

“In this age of scripted politicians speaking only to their base or claiming that they ‘don’t recall’ anything, the fact that Mr. Reid speaks his mind should be applauded, not derided. His brand of straight talk is honest, comes from the heart and speaks directly to the people,” Democrats wrote in the letter.

Reid has come under increasing pressure from Republicans and conservative news outlets who have attempted to paint him as a dove as well as out of step with the members of his own Caucus. However, while many members have stopped well short of fully endorsing Reid’s statements, Schumer, Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and other Caucus members have said they back the substance of his comments and his belief that Bush’s approach to the war has failed.

The weekend retreat at the tony Millennium United Nations Plaza Hotel was designed to be a private two-day conference for members of the Democratic Caucus to discuss a number of key legislative issues, including foreign policy, homeland security, economic anxiety and the middle class, education reform and the development of clean energy technologies.

For instance, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) moderated a panel on “The Exercise of American Power After the Bush Doctrine,” which included panelists Peter Beinart of The New Republic, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace President Jessica Tuchman Mathews and Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) was scheduled to hold a panel on “Realizing the Promise of Education Reform: the Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind” on Friday, while Sen. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) held a discussion on “Going Green; Clean Technologies, Environmental Protection and the Creation of High-Wage Jobs.”

Other speakers at the closed-door event included New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) and actor Michael J. Fox.

Significantly, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) — who for months has flirted with the possibility of throwing his hat into the GOP presidential primary race — was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a Saturday evening reception and dinner for Senators at Gracie Mansion.

Additionally, Schumer, Bingaman and Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Mary Landrieu (La.), Bob Menendez (N.J.), Benjamin Cardin (Md.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Patty Murray (Wash.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) were feted at a reception at the home of reclusive billionaire financier Leon Black, founder of the private equity firm Apollo Advisors.

Although Iraq and the supplemental spending bill were not an official topic of discussion, the issue was at the forefront of lawmakers’ minds as they prepare for what is expected to be a tense week in Washington. In a rarely used procedural move, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Reid have decided to conduct a formal “enrollment ceremony” Tuesday for the supplemental, in which the House approves transmitting the measure to the president and Pelosi, then walks the bill to the Senate chamber, where it is approved and sent to the White House.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) resurrected the use of the formal enrollment ceremony during the 109th Congress as a way to draw public attention to passage of a bill, and with the action on the supplemental planned for the fourth anniversary of Bush’s famous “Mission Accomplished” speech, Democrats acknowledged it will help dramatize their fight with Bush.

Meanwhile, Democrats said they plan to meet with Bush at the White House on Wednesday, following an invitation from the president last week. Reid said Friday he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) already have begun talks on how to proceed following Bush’s expected veto this week of the supplemental, and will meet again today to discuss the issue. Additionally, a leadership aide in the Senate said Reid and Pelosi have begun talks on the next legislative step.

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