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Unhappy Caucus Forces Reid to Rework Strategy

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (second from right) walks through the Capitol on Tuesday with Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray and Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer after the Democratic leadership slate was re-elected.

One major demand of the ’06 and ’08 classes on Tuesday was to have more influence and ownership of legislation moving through the chamber in an attempt to dilute the power of committee chairmen. Reid gained the Democratic leader spot in 2004 after promising many chairmen he would defer to them on most issues.

Members of the junior classes met Monday in defiance of Reid, after he rebuffed their request for a two-day retreat to discuss caucus politics, the Senate aide added. And they came well-prepared to Tuesday’s meetings with requests for more influence on committees, more productive caucus meetings, and changes to the Senate’s work schedule so it might be more efficient.

“Some say the process and procedure are secondary, but if you improve those and make adjustments, your policy’s going to be better,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), a member of the 2006 class. Democrats are expected to meet again Wednesday and Thursday to continue discussions, including their priorities for the agenda in the lame-duck session.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) acknowledged that leaders were dealing with demands for more changes and that some of the discussion revolved around giving junior Members more of a say in the legislative process and more authorship of bills.

“We’re finding way to utilize the talents of all of our Members,” he said.

On Monday, Reid alerted colleagues that he will transfer control of messaging and policy coordination to his No. 3 lieutenant, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and that he will switch out his chief of staff. He also elevated 2008 class member Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) to the new No. 5 leadership spot: chairman of the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee.

One senior Senate Democratic aide said the changes show that Reid’s eye is focused on 2012 and the challenges the next two years will present. The aide noted the large number of Democrats seeking re-election, as well as the fact that Republicans have much stronger hands to play in the House majority and in a bigger Senate minority.

“There are things that Reid does extremely well. ... It’s going to be increasingly difficult to get pieces of legislation through the House to the president and that’s where Reid’s focus is going to be,” the aide said. “At the same time, there will be a senior Senate Democrat [Schumer] who will be thinking every day about how to coordinate our policy and political message.”

The aide added that Reid also anticipates that the White House will be just as “ineffective” as they were during the past two years, but perhaps more so during the 112th Congress, because President Barack Obama will be focused on his own re-election.

“This is about making sure Obama’s got a majority to come back to when he gets re-elected,” the aide said.

The challenges Reid faces are nothing new. Junior Democrats fought for a more offensive message strategy after a bruising health care reform debate, and they took up filibuster reform once they grew frustrated with the slow pace of the chamber.

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