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Reid Surgery a Crucial Moment in a Storied Career

Reid's surgery is scheduled for Monday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

This is one of the most pivotal weeks in Harry Reid’s personal life, not to mention his congressional career.  

How he handles Monday’s complex surgery to rebuild a crushed orbital socket and remove pools of blood behind and in front of his right eyeball will not only determine whether the Nevadan regains the vision he lost earlier this month in a freakish exercising mishap . His recovery’s pace and comprehensiveness also will help decide how long he remains the top Senate Democrat and his ability to seek re-election next year. The senator is setting high expectations for his recuperation, his place in the Capitol power structure and his political fortunes back home.  

At a news conference four days before the operation — meticulously planned so Reid might appear as robust and engaged as possible  — he boasted of his medical team's prognosis that "there's no reason I can’t come back to work" on Feb. 2, after a single week of post-operative healing. He moved to dispel the impression he’s been compelled by pain or partial blindness to relinquish any substantive aspects of his leadership portfolio, offering, “There’s been no surprises for me.” And he asserted that his injuries had not altered his plans for 2016, declaring , “At this stage, I’m fully intending to run.”  

Still, the number of warning signs and unanswered questions make plain Reid’s future is not entirely clear on any of those fronts.  

Other than the occasionally balky balance that preceded his accident, Reid comes across as a very vigorous 75-year-old — which makes him, at the start of his second decade as Democratic floor leader, the oldest senator ever in the job.  

He likes to boast that though his legendary stint as an amateur boxer is over, his three-times-a-week workout includes 250 situps and several hundred repetitions of arm and chest exercises. (When a big rubber exercise band snapped during his routine on New Year’s Day, he said he was thrown violently off balance and into some cabinets at his Las Vegas home, breaking four ribs in addition to several bones in his face.)  

So his maxillofacial surgeons and ophthalmologists are, according to Reid, confident he’s a healthy enough candidate for the procedures they’ll perform Monday at George Washington University Hospital, which is about as close to Reid’s condominium at the Ritz-Carlton as his leadership suite in the Capitol is from his other office in the Hart Building.  

Still, his eye damage was serious enough that he had to sleep sitting up for a couple of weeks, has been discouraged from driving on bumpy roads and was not able to walk unassisted until late last week. And he’s been told not to read or watch television for fear of straining both his good blue eye, (20/20 vision, he says), and the one covered with a thick patch and outsized bandage.  

He skipped not only swearing-in day and the State of the Union address, but also the year’s first 26 roll call votes, half of which occurred after his staff described him as back to work.  

And rather than appear at his usual podium to parry with the congressional press throng for his 2015 debut, Reid sat for 14 minutes in a Chippendale chair in a room that could accommodate only three-dozen reporters, photographers and video technicians.  

Those facts alone mark Reid as the most medically challenged party leader since Lyndon B. Johnson had a heart attack in 1955. (It kept him off the floor for the final month of a session that ended in August, but his recuperation back in Texas lasted to December.)  

Reid, his aides and his leadership lieutenants are portraying a different situation now. They all describe the Democratic leader as regularly on the telephone to help plot strategy and receive the briefings normally delivered on paper. And at his news conference, he had detailed responses to questions about the Homeland Security funding impasse, the Keystone XL pipeline bill, Iran sanctions, trade policy and a possible speech to Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (“He called me, as a matter of fact, about my injury, which I appreciated.”)  

Senate Democratic leaders don't sound concerned.  

“He's very impatient, more than anything,” Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who’s been filling in on the floor as the embodiment of leadership, told CQ Roll Call.  

“He’s fine, and he’s going to be fine,” said the No. 3 senator in the Democratic hierarchy, Charles E. Schumer of New York.  

Reid’s support among his peers cannot be described as rock solid. After the Democratic losses in the fall's midterm elections, 5 of the 46 members of his caucus voted against retaining him as leader , essentially matching the 10 percent of House Republicans who voted against re-electing Speaker John A. Boehner.  

And his standing is not strong in Nevada, a swing state in presidential years, where majorities currently disapprove of Reid’s job performance but think well of his potential Republican challenger, recently re-elected Gov. Brian Sandoval.  

But the bruising and broken bones do not appear to have altered a bedrock bipartisan conventional wisdom at the Capitol. Reid is one of the most physically and politically resilient members in modern times. He’s lived through a hospitalization for exhaustion in 2013, a serious car crash the year before and even an attempted car bombing when he was Nevada’s top gambling regulator in 1981. In between, he’s won 4 of his 5 Senate elections with 51 percent of the vote or less. So betting against him is a risky move.  

“He’s one tough guy,” offered Nevada’s other senator, Republican Dean Heller.  

“He’ll be back. He always comes back,” added GOP Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa.  

And Reid himself had this to say when asked how he was managing to work despite his pain: “I take Tylenol — once in a while.”  

Correction, 3:40 p.m. A previous version of this story misstated Harry Reid's title. He is Senate minority leader.  

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