GOP Divided on Reid’s Fate

Leader Gets a Bit of a Breather

Posted January 12, 2010 at 6:13pm

GOP Senators, divided on how to move forward, have no plans to mount a unified campaign to try to force embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) from his leadership post.

While a handful of prominent Republicans have called for Reid to step aside, most GOP Senators are keeping an arm’s length from the controversy involving racially insensitive remarks Reid used in 2008 to describe President Barack Obama. Among the reasons: a distaste among some Senators for scandal politics and a general uneasiness from within their ranks to re-enact the 2002 ouster of then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

The move is likely to give Reid some much-needed breathing room as he works to distance himself from the scandal. The comments — Reid referred to Obama as “light skinned— and says he has no “Negro dialect— — appear in the new book “Game Change— and became public over the weekend.

In the immediate aftermath, at least three high-profile Republicans called for Reid to step down as Majority Leader, including Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.). The trio argued that Democrats are using a double standard to judge Reid, arguing they were more than willing to call for Lott to step down when he said in 2002 that the country would be better off had former Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) — once a segregationist candidate — been elected president.

“It’s difficult to see this situation as anything other than a clear double standard on the part of Senate Democrats and others. In 2002, Democrats expressed outrage at Sen. Lott and called on him to step down as leader. That same standard should be applied to Sen. Reid and his embarrassing and racially insensitive statements,— Cornyn said Sunday.

But in the days since, Reid’s GOP colleagues have largely held their fire, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who on Tuesday said it is up to the Democrats to decide Reid’s fate.

“I think that’s an issue for the Democratic Conference. … Who is going to be the Democratic leader of the Senate is up to the Democrats,— McConnell said.

Republicans pointed to a number of factors that have played into the less-than-aggressive GOP response to the Reid imbroglio, including that Senators — still in recess until next week — aren’t in Washington to coordinate a strategy. But more importantly, many said that the 2002 toppling of Lott left a bad taste in the mouths of many Senate Republicans, and few Members have an appetite for a similar episode involving Reid.

“Republicans aren’t concerned with a Conference-wide position on Harry Reid’s tenure. The range of responses are largely a reflection of each Senators’ take-away from the Trent Lott episode in 2002. Some see it as a clear double standard and want retribution. Others think that unless you believe Harry Reid is a racist, his apology should cover it — as Trent Lott’s should have in 2002,— a GOP leadership aide said.

As a result, those Republicans who have commented on Reid’s scandal have largely done so on their own, and their reactions have been varied.

For instance, during a Tuesday interview on NBC’s “Today Show,— Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) accused Democrats of being hypocritical in not forcing Reid out but stopped short of advocating for Reid’s resignation. Similarly, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who took Lott’s seat when he retired from the Senate in 2007, noted that while “there’s a particular interest in our state because of what Sen. Lott went through … I’m a lot more concerned, frankly, that Sen. Reid is the guy who a couple of years ago said the effort in Iraq was lost. I think the voters of Nevada will make a judgment about that.—

Reid, who is highly unpopular at home, is facing a brutal re-election battle this year.

Still, his home-state GOP colleague Sen. John Ensign is coming to Reid’s defense. In an interview with radio station KKOH on Monday, Ensign argued against “gotcha politics— and said Reid has taken responsibility for his comments. Ensign, himself the source of controversy involving an extramarital affair with a former staffer, has long been personally close with Reid. Reid has also bit his tongue on the Ensign scandal.

“I don’t think there’s a person walking, certainly not a politician out there, that hasn’t made comments they regret. … When you make those comments, as long as you take responsibility for your comments and apologize for them, I think people should accept that. Democrats were really wrong in what they did to Trent Lott, and we shouldn’t do the same thing to Sen. Reid,— Ensign said.

Even Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who has a long history of warring with Reid on the Senate floor, has dismissed calls for him to step aside. He even chastised members of his own party Tuesday for piling on.

“It pains me that Republicans are saying Harry Reid ought to step down. When you point a finger, you have four fingers pointing back at you. There is not anybody in Washington who has not said something that could be judged inappropriate and wrong,— Coburn said in the Tulsa World.