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Reid's skills on offense to be tested

His minority leadership was strong; now he'll tackle Bush head-on.

December 01, 2006|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sen. Harry Reid was playing tour guide as he welcomed the new class of Democratic senators to his ornate office days after last month's historic midterm election.

He chatted about Joshua trees in a wilderness area he helped create in his home state of Nevada and showed off a painting of the Mojave Desert shack where he grew up. Then, as eight nervous newcomers clustered around him, he pointed to a portrait above his desk of an aging Andrew Jackson.

"I like it because he's lost all his teeth," Reid said of the work he chose over more dashing renderings of the former president.

If the selection is unorthodox, it befits the man who will become Senate majority leader when Democrats assume power on Capitol Hill in January.

Unpolished and a little grandfatherly, Reid in many ways seems an unlikely torchbearer for his party.

He is uncomfortable delivering sound bites and policy pronouncements. He often interrupts his comments with awkward pauses that give the impression he has lost his train of thought. He seems to enjoy chatting about a legendary Nevada killer who eluded authorities in the 1920s and '30s as much as discussing the business of government. And he makes no secret of his indifference for the spotlight. "I don't think it's what the job calls for," Reid said in a recent interview.

As minority leader the last two years, his approach proved highly effective: By playing defense, Reid bottled up many GOP initiatives.

But with Democrats catapulted into control of the Senate, the former amateur boxer will assume a broader responsibility for charting alternatives to the Bush agenda. On Iraq, for example, Reid has promised a vigorous drive to withdraw troops.

As he prepares for his new job, however, Reid faces a huge question: Can he cobble together a legislative record his party can be proud of? Though his low-key style masks toughness and great political dexterity, it is unclear if that will be enough.

The Democrats will have a bare one-vote majority. And Reid will not have the platform commanded by President Bush or Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who as the next House speaker will preside over a chamber where a leader can exercise much greater control.

Reid also can expect to come under more scrutiny. In recent years, ethical questions have been raised about his sponsorship of legislation that benefited clients of his sons and son-in-law, his efforts to secure federal money for a bridge near land he owns, and political contributions he received from Indian tribes represented by imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Reid has denied any impropriety.

"It's not going to be easy," said Barbara Sinclair, a UCLA political scientist. "Senate majority leader can be an obscure post

Reid, 66, agrees. "I understand my limitations," he said.

But those who have worked with Reid and watched him battle and cut deals say he should not be underestimated.

"He may have learned it in the ring, but he knows how to assess people," said former Sen. John B. Breaux, a centrist Louisiana Democrat. "You have to have a feel for it. You either have it or you don't. Harry has it."

The son of a hard-rock miner who killed himself and a mother who did the laundry for a bordello, Reid grew up in the tiny town of Searchlight, about 60 miles south of Las Vegas.

His home, fashioned from railroad ties, lacked indoor plumbing. He hitchhiked 40 miles to get to high school. And he put himself through law school at George Washington University by working as a U.S. Capitol Police officer.

By the time he was 30, Reid -- who became a Mormon as a young man -- had been elected to the state Assembly and won his race for lieutenant governor.

In the late 1970s, he did a stint on Nevada's Gaming Commission and tangled with organized crime; at one point, the Reid family's station wagon was wired with a bomb that failed to go off.

He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982 and, after serving four years, won a seat in the Senate.

As an abortion opponent and champion of mining interests and gun rights, Reid has broken from some of his party's core positions. And as a backer of development in his fast-growing state, he sometimes squares off against environmentalists.

Still, Reid's genuineness has won fans across the party's ideological spectrum. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a liberal and fierce defender of abortion rights, calls Reid "my brother."

The Nevada senator rarely seems scripted, whether musing about Western writers with a visiting college professor or discussing the personal habits of Lyndon B. Johnson -- "a horrible man," Reid said of the former president and Senate majority leader.

Reid also has proved adroit at the little things that cement loyalties, such as scheduling votes to accommodate members' schedules, arranging committee assignments, even helping to find extra office space.

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