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Safely Re-Elected, Reid Steps Back Into the Ring

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is back.

The Nevada Democrat, fresh off a successful bid for a fifth term, seems to be everywhere these days, holding near-daily press conferences and aggressively promoting his party’s priorities for the lame-duck session. It’s a marked change for Reid, who spent much of the past year shying away from the national scene, focusing on home-state issues and talking to home-state press.

Reid never completely disengaged from the national spotlight: He continued to whip votes and hold his weekly news conferences after the Tuesday caucus lunches.

But even his colleagues acknowledged that their Majority Leader kept a lower profile on Capitol Hill in the months leading up to the Nov. 2 elections, in which he faced a stiff challenge from Republican Sharron Angle.

“All of us were in a campaign cycle, very focused on what we need to do in our home states and what we need to do for those campaigns,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said. “So I think it’s understandable that now that that’s over, and he had a terrific victory, that he’s very focused on what we need to do for this lame-duck session and what we need to do going forward in the next Congress.”

Senate Democrats have spent nearly every day of post-election session in multihour, closed-door strategy meetings. All the while, Reid has gone before the cameras to make his party’s case; he has held a handful of solo press conferences in recent weeks.

On the issue of extending the Bush-era tax cuts before they expire Dec. 31 — one of the top issues facing Congress — Reid this past weekend held firm on his threat to hold Saturday votes. The Nevada Democrat has been known to threaten to hold the Senate in session on Saturdays and Sundays to combat Republican intransigence, but he usually relents.

Sen. Jack Reed, a close Reid ally, said the Majority Leader continued to make the tough decisions throughout the two-year campaign cycle when he could have easily demurred in the face of home-state political pressure. But the Rhode Island Democrat acknowledged that Reid’s re-election battle influenced how he ran the Conference — and that he can operate more freely now that it’s over.

“The time constraints of the campaign are so demanding for anybody that, without the campaign, obviously, you have more time, and I think that’s the major factor in his visibility,” Reed said. “One of the most remarkable things about him is that in the most difficult circumstances — and this election was difficult from the very beginning — he maintained not only his composure, but also he made tough decisions.”

Some Democratic strategists who followed Reid and his re-election effort agreed that the Majority Leader is once again free to be a national partisan leader. Reid spent the previous several months, particularly since financial regulatory reform was enacted in July, moving cautiously, couching each decision that he made as in the best interest of Nevada, those strategists said.

Nevada is a swing state, and some Democrats think Reid had no choice but to embrace a more pragmatic side after six years of being a national party leader, first as Minority Leader and then as Majority Leader.

Even Reid acknowledged that his weak standing with the electorate — his favorability with voters dropped dramatically since becoming the Senate Democratic leader, according to polls — was at least partly because of the role that he must play as a party figurehead.

“He needed to tame his partisanship as much as he could leading up to the election,” said one Democratic strategist with experience in Nevada politics. “But now he’s back to work. Two years is an eternity in politics, and he’s looking at six years before his next re-election.”

“He’ll always put Nevada first,” added Susan McCue, Reid’s former chief of staff who is now a Democratic operative. “But he isn’t campaigning around the clock so he has more time to spend on all levels of strategic and tactical policy advancement.”

Other Democrats do not disagree that Reid has become more visible since returning to Washington, D.C., for the lame-duck session, but they contend that it may be more because of circumstance than design.

The weekly Democratic leadership pen-and-pads featuring Reid and his team were abandoned several months before the elections. One senior Democratic Senate aide said that wasn’t an effort to put a lid on Reid — who has been known to spark a fury with his controversial comments — but because those news conferences weren’t achieving their goal of driving the message and helping put the caucus on offense.

A second senior Democratic aide said Reid’s increased media presence since Nov. 2 is a function of necessity. Senate Democrats have looked to Reid, as their leader, to speak for them and answer questions as to how they plan to proceed, both legislatively and politically.

But in whatever manner Reid’s re-emergence is viewed, Democrats agree he is liberated from having to focus first on campaigning and is able to spend more time navigating internal caucus politics and leading the national policy debate.

“I think he had a really tough election, and I’m delighted he won,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said.

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