Reid's skills on offense to be tested

Times Staff Writer

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.

"It all stems from relationships.... He was masterful," said former Sen. Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat who as majority and minority leader worked with Reid.

Reid has developed a close relationship with Nevada's junior senator, Republican John Ensign. The two squared off in a bitter campaign in 1998, and Reid won reelection by fewer than 450 votes. Two years later, Ensign won the state's other Senate seat, and soon afterward they reached what they term a "nonaggression pact."

"There are a lot of people who try to get us to go at each other," Ensign said recently. But "it's developed into a friendship."

Still, since he took over as minority leader in 2004, Reid has proved a fierce partisan warrior.

That year's election devastated Democrats -- President Bush swept to a second term, Republicans expanded their majorities in Congress, Daschle lost his reelection bid and Reid's party was left with fewer Senate seats than at any time since the early days of the Great Depression.

Reid quickly prepared to fight, setting up a war room on the Capitol's third floor -- where young aides monitored a wall of televisions and pumped out news releases to counter Bush and his congressional allies.

When the president began a national tour to promote his plan to partially privatize Social Security, Reid traveled the country to speak against it. He and his leadership team gathered signatures from 42 Democratic senators opposing the plan -- a key, early sign that it would lack essential bipartisan support.

"He rallied [his colleagues]. He held them.... He demonstrated that in unity there was strength," said Democratic political consultant Paul Begala. "That was the first big turning point for the Democrats" during Bush's second term.

Other victories followed as Reid gently prodded his caucus to block the Republican majority, mindful not to push his personal agenda too hard.

Reid stepped out of the way this fall to let more liberal Democrats rally the votes to stop a measure long sought by social conservatives that would have strengthened parental consent requirements for abortion. Reid voted for the GOP measure.

"You have to give people rein," Reid said as he discussed managing a notoriously fractious Democratic caucus.

At a recent coffee, Reid told the new Democratic senators much the same. But he asked for one thing in return.

"Be honest," he said, warning that he has never forgotten the one senator who lied to him about a vote. "Be careful when you tell us, 'I'm for you.' "

Reid has been speaking a lot about the need for bipartisanship. "I tried to set the right tone by not gloating" after the Democrats' midterm success, he said.

He expressed hope that the Democrats would be able to work with at least some Republicans to raise the federal minimum wage, increase oversight of the administration's war policies and pass other initiatives.

But he clearly remains troubled about the prospects of working with Bush, whose commitment to changing course in Iraq Reid said he doubted.

"Certainly, I don't dislike him," Reid said of the president, whom he once called a liar. "It's just difficult, because I don't believe in what he's doing most of the time."

noam.levey@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Harry Reid

Born: Dec. 2, 1939

Hometown: Searchlight, Nev.

Family: Wife Landra, five children, 16 grandchildren

Education: Bachelor's degree, Utah State University, 1961; law degree, George Washington University, 1964

Political career: Nevada Assembly 1969-71; Nevada lieutenant governor 1971-75; U.S. House of Representatives 1983-87; U.S. Senate 1987--present

Source: Los Angeles Times

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