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Harry Reid Absent, but Still in Charge

(Courtesy Reid's Office)

As Senate Democrats headed to Baltimore for their retreat, Minority Leader Harry Reid wasn't with them — but he will be listening in.  

Even without a physical presence, the Nevada Democrat is still making the daily decisions about running the caucus — and an aide said late Wednesday he is likely to return to the Capitol next week.  

His injuries from an exercising accident have forced him to remain a prisoner of sorts at his home in D.C.'s Ritz-Carlton, away from the Capitol where he has worked for more than 30 years as a member of Congress and before that, as a Capitol policeman while putting himself through law school.  

Reid broke bones in his face and four ribs , and he suffered a concussion after he fell when the resistance band he was exercising with snapped on New Year's Day. He temporarily lost sight in one eye, though he's said doctors are optimistic he will recover.  

While doctor's orders have precluded Reid from making the trip just more than 30 miles north to Baltimore, a senior Democratic aide said a line has been hooked up to allow him to connect to the meetings from home.  

When bipartisan congressional leaders went to the White House Tuesday, Reid missed the less than 1-mile trip but had the only aide in the room representing Senate Democrats.  

Reid received a full briefing from that aide, and had a conversation with other Democratic leaders in attendance. A senior Democratic aide said Reid also spoke with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough ahead of the meeting.  

Reid has delegated the task of standing in for him on the Senate floor to the No. 2 Senate Democratic leader, Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who is being aided by Reid's staff. But aides and senators alike said Reid is still very much the man in charge.  

"He's on top of all of it,” Durbin said during Tuesday afternoon floor negotiations on how to move forward on amendments to legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline. "I think he's following it very closely, but we have to execute it at the local level."  

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he still feels Reid's presence in Democrats' approach to the Senate.  

"It certainly seems like they’re continuing the pattern of not making it any easier to get anything done," quipped Cornyn, who added that he wished Reid well and hoped for a speedy recovery.  

Reid also has been in touch by phone with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, regarding the strategy on the pipeline debate.  

Democrats are pushing for amendments on the bill and plan to hold Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to his word on allowing an open amendment process.  

One amendment Democrats want to offer is a proposal from Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats, that would get Republicans on the record about whether they believe climate change is caused by human activity.  

But Democrats were still adjusting to the absence of their leader.  

"Harry has a very strong personality and, yes, many of us miss him very much and hope that he gets back as quickly a possible," Sanders said.  

That will be in days, not weeks or months, if Reid continues to improve as expected.  

His staff goes to his home regularly and he is on the phone frequently with senators, including Durbin and Charles E. Schumer of New York, who leads the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.  

But that's not the same as being in the chamber or his ornate office.  

The impact on Democrats has been limited by the timing of the injury — at the start of a Congress, with little legislative drama to speak of that would require a leader to make a quick decision on the floor — and with Republicans in charge of setting the agenda.  

"Frankly, there's been limited floor activity in terms of votes," noted Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.  

But at the same time, Democrats have important decisions to make about how they will face life in the minority — including how obstructionist to be, how much to defer to President Barack Obama and how to handle the assorted issues where Democrats are divided, such as trade and banking regulation.  

In Reid's absence, Democrats have foregone the opportunity for the weekly press availabilities after the caucus lunch and plan to keep doing so until he returns.  

Once Reid returns, the plan is for him, Durbin, Schumer and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who is conference secretary, to all appear before the press corps on Tuesdays. That's a change from recent years, when Reid would appear alone, even as McConnell brought along his leadership team and assorted other senators.  

At Tuesday's GOP leadership appearance in the Ohio Clock Corridor, McConnell didn't point to any real changes in operations on the other side of the aisle in Reid's absence.  

"Sen. Durbin has been standing in for Sen. Reid. I think that's the pecking order, if you will. And we're all hoping Sen. Reid's going to be back very soon," McConnell said.  

Reid typically runs the Tuesday caucus lunch and opens the weekly Thursday policy lunch. Democrats didn't meet Tuesday because it was a truncated week. It's unclear who will run the next caucus meeting if Reid isn't able to attend.  

Schumer opened and led last Wednesday's meeting. Starting on Jan. 22, Democrats plan to begin to hold weekly news conferences led by Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat and messaging chief.  

Even before the injury, Reid faced the dual challenge of showing he can still lead his Democrats in the minority while running for re-election in 2016.  

"That will probably be one of the top Senate races in the country in 2016, so he knows that, we know that, in addition to his other responsibilities that is something you've always got to take care of if you’re in cycle," Cornyn said.  

To that end, Reid released a video on the Internet last week in which he discussed his accident, and he did an interview on KPNR and even took a question from a caller.  

The old boxer is trying to make it clear he's not going anywhere.  

And so far, there has been little talk about a more formal succession plan. It's an open question whether the past few weeks would have much of an impact on the longtime D.C. parlor talk of whether — or when — Schumer, Durbin or somebody else will ultimately succeed Reid in the top job.  

Reid, after all, told CQ Roll Call in 2013 he anticipates remaining the Democratic leader through 2022 .  

Health has been a touchy subject for politicians throughout history. President Franklin D. Roosevelt hid the fact the he had polio and President John F. Kennedy suffered from health problems since childhood that were only relatively recently written about.  

But to his credit, Reid appears to have been open about the extent of his injuries.  

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.    

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