Reid's Gaffe Undercuts Momentum

Monday, 08 Mar 2010 08:12 AM

By Stephen Dinan

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It had been a good two weeks for Majority Leader Harry Reid, who used tough parliamentary tactics to push through the Senate three measures, all of which could be described as "jobs bills."

Then Friday, he stepped on that message, taking to the Senate floor to praise that morning's news that the economy shed 36,000 jobs in February as "really good." What he meant was that the numbers were not as bad as expectations, but what he actually said earned a blaring red banner headline on the Drudge Report.

Hours later, Mr. Reid was back on the Senate floor to clean up the mess, reading carefully from prepared remarks and assuring C-SPAN viewers and folks back in Nevada that he does think "the unemployment rate is still too high."

So it goes for Mr. Reid, who, in the face of a brutal re-election battle in Nevada, notched some serious successes for bragging rights back home, but who showed he can still be his own worst enemy.

It's become so bad that "Saturday Night Live" has spoofed Mr. Reid as untelegenic and uncharismatic, and portrayed him as uniquely vulnerable among senators this year over the unpopular health care reform bill.

Since Senate Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority when Scott Brown, Massachusetts Republican, was sworn in last month, Mr. Reid has taken to playing legislative hardball. He has proposed a series of small, targeted bills and forced Republicans to either vote for them or face criticism for obstructing action to spur job creation.

The success of the strategy can be seen in the vote tallies: Led by Mr. Brown, four Republicans broke ranks and headed off a filibuster over a $15 billion measure to continue highway funding and create a payroll tax holiday for hiring unemployed workers. Days later, the Senate voted 76-20 to head off another filibuster on Mr. Reid's bill to promote tourism abroad.

Last week, the Senate overcame the blockade by Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican, on a short-term extension of highway construction and unemployment-benefits funding.

"We scored major victories for Nevada this week," Mr. Reid said in an e-mail to supporters back home, properly claiming credit for having gone head to head with Mr. Bunning to force that measure to a final vote.

The recent bills have been modest measures focused on jobs, and Jim Manley, a spokesman for Mr. Reid, says that has helped free up Republican votes.

"In light of Scott Brown's election, in light of the pressing need to deal with the economy, it has provided and will provide an opportunity for additional bipartisan support," Mr. Manley said.

Democrats are making a calculated gamble that voters care more about job revival than they do about reining in the ballooning deficit. Republicans say the bet won't pay off.

Much of the fight over those three jobs bills was whether Democrats would abide by their own new pay-as-you-go, or "pay-go," rules that require new spending to be offset by spending cuts or tax increases elsewhere in the budget.

"Democrats have been very successful at violating their own pay-go rules and their oft-repeated pledges to rein in spending," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Mr. Reid's big legislative tests are still to come: how he handles health care reform almost certainly will overshadow a string of bills to encourage job growth.

Still, on the local front, the majority leader got some good parochial news when the Energy Department took steps last week to withdraw the application to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Nevadans are strongly opposed to using the site as a nuclear-waste dump.

"Millions of Nevada families and businesses breathed a sigh of relief," Mr. Reid said in an e-mail to supporters, taking credit for being part of the effort.

Mr. Reid has a history of foot-in-mouth. He made an offhand insult calling tourists to the Capitol smelly. In what was supposed to be an off-the-record interview for a book, he called President Obama "light-skinned" and said he doesn't speak with a "Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." Mr. Reid later apologized to Mr. Obama.

Then came Friday.

In taking the Senate floor in the morning, when he customarily announces the day's schedule, Mr. Reid touted the $15 billion payroll-tax bill that had just passed the House and been signed by the president. He also blasted a House Republican who opposed the measure and said in a radio interview that the bill should have included tax write-offs for business investments.

Mr. Reid said those were included in the legislation and that the lawmaker "should try reading [the bill] first. Maybe if he did that, he wouldn't be making a fool of himself across America by talking about small businesses being able to write things off, when that is really in the bill."

Republicans, however, had argued on the House floor that reading the bill was impossible because they were given the legislation only a few hours before the vote.

Later that day came the jobs comments. The National Republican Senatorial Committee did not waste the offering, quickly issuing a press release: "Harry Reid has done it again."

Mr. Manley said the Reid team can deal with the carping.

"We've always got people watching us. We understand that, both here and in Nevada," he said.

Mr. Reid's legislative successes don't appear to be trickling back to Nevada. Three of his potential Republican challengers hold substantial leads over the incumbent in polls, ranging as high as 13 percentage points in a Rasmussen Reports survey taken March 3.

Those numbers are worse for Mr. Reid than they were last month, when Rasmussen last surveyed.

That Mr. Reid is a top target is clear.

The Nevada Republican Party has a "Reid Count Down" tote board on the front of its Web site counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until "Harry Reid leaves office," though the counter actually appears timed to the Nov. 2 elections, not the January date when the next Congress begins.

The majority leader is carrying a giant campaign treasury to use in his re-election bid, and Mr. Obama has campaigned and raised money for Mr. Reid twice in Nevada.

Still, all sides are mindful of the lesson of Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader who lost his South Dakota seat in 2004 amid a Republican electoral tide.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC

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