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The Other Reed Begins to See His Senate Spotlight Brighten

Reed attended a news conference on jobless benefits Wednesday. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)
Reed attended a news conference on jobless benefits Wednesday. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

If January’s award for biggest out-of-the-shadows move by a Senate Republican goes to Michael B. Enzi, then the companion prize for a Democrat must surely be given to Jack Reed.

Rhode Island’s senior senator takes such a somber and studious approach to his work that his name comes up as often as not at the Capitol in homonymous confusion with the majority leader. But not this week, when Reed is near the center of three of the new year’s biggest stories.

He’s the most visible face of the Democrats’ unexpected success in getting the Senate debate started on the renewal of expired jobless benefits for as many as 1.3 million of the long-term unemployed. Just out of view, he’s among the handful of senior appropriators (he chairs the Interior-Environment subpanel) working to shrink the roster of policy disputes so $1 trillion in spending decisions might get done close to on time.

And the new memoir by Robert Gates, with its surprisingly harsh criticism of President Barack Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the war in Afghanistan, is a reminder that Obama more than once seriously considered making Reed his secretary of Defense.

To top it off, the 64-year-old senator got a dollop of cute coverage Tuesday — a Washington Post “Reliable Source” item about being spotted with his 7-year-old daughter, Emily, at last weekend’s Kennedy Center matinee of the holiday musical “Elf.”

The multifaceted nature of Reed’s arrival in the spotlight is partly an accident of timing, combined with the unusual breadth of his topflight committee assignments and his increasing seniority.

It’s also a testament to how he’s something of a progressive liberal version of the conservative Enzi, a fellow member of the Senate Class of 1996 whose power profile is likely to grow in the coming year: Both are long on commitment to their ideological beliefs, but short of interest in spewing partisan animus; serious about pursuing their policy homework, but with a way-below-average level of senatorial self-importance; more interested in getting what they want out of hearings and legislative negotiations than in getting interviewed by the cable TV networks.

Reed won’t even have to break a sweat to win a fourth term in the deep blue Ocean State, which Obama carried by 28 points last year. He will be the ninth-most-senior member of the Democratic caucus next year, with a choice of prestigious committees where he can ascend to the party’s top seat.

The retirement of Tim Johnson of South Dakota will open the senior slot at Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, where Reed has been a steady spokesman for his party on housing and homelessness policies and a force for tightening Wall Street regulations. (The committee is also where Reed has become an advocate of a robust unemployment insurance program as good for long-term economic growth. It’s also parochially important because at 9 percent, Rhode Island’s jobless rate is almost the highest among the states.)

But Reed is widely expected to decide instead to succeed the retiring Carl Levin of Michigan as the chairman or ranking Democrat on Armed Services — and at a particularly pivotal moment, as Congress and the commanders confront a period of declining spending limits while reordering the military’s priorities for a wave of shifting national security needs.

It’s a position Reed has been preparing for since elementary school, when he spent hours poring over an illustrated history of World War II. He set his sights on the service academies at age 12 and his parents, a school custodian father and factory laborer mother, paid for orthodontia so he could have the requisite straight teeth. But he got to West Point only by stretching to meet its strict height requirement. (He’s under 5 foot, 7 inches.)

After graduation, the Army sent him to Harvard for a master’s degree; then he rose to captain while teaching at his alma mater and commanding a company of fellow paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne. He took off the uniform at 29 to go to law school, and after less than a decade as a corporate lawyer and state legislator, he was elected to the House.

The chance to wield the Armed Services gavel is what prompted Reed to beg off when the president asked him in 2010 about succeeding Gates at the Pentagon. The senator was also considered for Defense secretary when Obama was assembling his initial Cabinet. And Reed declined to be vetted by the campaign team that looked at a long list of vice-presidential prospects in 2008.

The reason for all those overtures helps explain why Reed will be an important ally of the White House during the president’s final two lame-duck years: He and Obama look to be in tune on national defense in ways that the president and Gates (with the benefit of guaranteed-best-seller hindsight) clearly were not.

Reed was among just 21 Democratic senators who voted against authorizing the Iraq War in 2002. But after it began, he called for a more a robust prosecution than the Bush administration favored. When Obama arrived in the Senate three years later, he tapped Reed as his mentor in military matters — and then as his guide during a Middle East trip during the 2008 campaign. When Obama announced his Afghanistan troop buildup in a 2009 speech, Reed was by his side. And these days he supports Obama’s plans for troop reductions. As policies have evolved on U.S. intervention in the Libyan and Syrian civil wars, Reed has had the president’s back.

“A job accomplished, even when few are paying attention, is extremely valuable in terms of self-esteem,” Reed said in a Wednesday floor speech. He was describing his interest in shielding the unemployed from despair, but the sentiment might as well apply to a senator nearing the little-heralded top of his game.

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