CBC Holds Its Fire on Reid Flap

Posted January 11, 2010 at 6:25pm

Black lawmakers aren’t condemning Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) over his racially insensitive remarks about President Barack Obama, but they aren’t exactly rallying to his defense, either.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Monday generally steered clear of commenting on the news that Reid, in a 2008 interview for a newly released book, referred to Obama as “light skinned— and remarked that Obama has “no Negro dialect.— Most cited the actions Reid took over the weekend to diffuse the matter: He apologized to Obama and called two key black House leaders to make amends: Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

Reid’s public relations blitz appeared to win over the people he needed the most: Within hours of news breaking about Reid’s racially charged comments, Obama had accepted his apology and Lee was painting him as an ally to the black community.

“I have had an opportunity to speak with Sen. Reid and he apologized for his unfortunate remarks concerning the president and he understands the gravity of such remarks. … Sen. Reid’s record provides a stark contrast to actions of Republicans to block legislation that would benefit poor and minority communities, most recently reflected in Republican opposition to the health bill now under consideration. I look forward to Sen. Reid continuing to serve as Majority Leader to guide this important agenda through the Senate,— Lee said in a statement.

Beyond Lee, however, black lawmakers were keeping mum on the matter. A spokesman for Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a CBC leader, said he “hasn’t read Reid’s book and had no comment on the reported quote.— A spokeswoman for Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands), also a CBC leader, reiterated that the lawmaker is “part of the CBC— and said, “Whatever the CBC statement was, she agrees with that.—

An aide to another CBC member said her boss isn’t commenting because he “would rather stay out of it because it’s so partisan. He would see it as partisan and not worthy of comment, honestly.—

Reid himself rebuffed repeated offers on Monday from Democratic colleagues to mount a public campaign of support on his behalf, relying instead on African-American leaders in the administration, Congress and the civil rights community to defend him. According to Democratic aides, top Senate Democratic leaders all offered to make statements or appear on cable news outlets to show their support for Reid. But he told them that public backing from black leaders was a more powerful message.

The fact that the House hasn’t been in session for weeks may also be fueling black lawmakers’ desire to avoid a tangle over the incident and give the benefit of the doubt to Reid, who has a history of gaffes when talking to the press.

“This happened two years ago and an apology was made and it was accepted. That’s the attitude. It takes away from the focus of what we’re working on with jobs, the economy and health care,— said one aide to a CBC member.

A senior Democratic aide said Reid’s remarks “make people bristle,— but everybody knows “he has demonstrated that he’s got intentions that are better than the language that is used. I don’t think it will have a lasting impact.—

But Republicans are already calling for Reid to step down and are drawing parallels to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) being forced to step down from his leadership post in 2002 after saying the country would be better off if the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) had been elected president in 1948. Thurmond was known for filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

An aide to a CBC member also said “there is a call out for Republicans to ask the CBC to take a stand— against Reid over his remarks. A senior House GOP aide said that is “definitely not— the case, however.

This isn’t the first time Reid has ruffled feathers in the CBC. In January 2009, Reid took heat from the group by initially pushing back against seating appointed Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) in the chamber. He also irked CBC members by reportedly counseling then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) not to tap one of the three African-American candidates considered leading contenders for the post that Obama vacated when he was elected president.

“It was very disturbing to me, being that [Reid] had just witnessed a man of color become president of the United States,— Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said at the time. “What he was trying to say was that it was almost impossible for an African-American to be elected to the Senate from Illinois. If he’s smiling in our faces and saying those things behind our backs, I’m extremely disappointed.—

A House Democratic leadership aide said Monday that the reality is that, despite occasional hiccups, Reid has a good relationship with the group. Reid “wants to be responsive on issues to the CBC— and meets with CBC members on a regular basis, the aide said.