Senate Dems turn to Reed on Iraq

As several Democratic presidential contenders posture and vie for attention, Senate Democratic leaders increasingly are turning to one of their less-visible colleagues, Jack Reed, to represent caucus views on Iraq.

Reed, Rhode Island’s senior senator, has appeared at several recent press events on Iraq, including one at which Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.); Carl Levin (Mich.), the top-ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee; and Reed released a letter calling on President Bush to give a more-detailed plan for success in Iraq.

On Saturday, he delivered the Democrats’ response to Bush’s weekly radio address.

“The American people are eager to hear the president’s plan for success in Iraq, rebuilding the country and bringing our troops home,” Reed said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “Instead, the president continues to offer vague generalities and rhetoric with no specifics about what needs to be done and the time and resources necessary to accomplish it.”

Reed, 56, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, commanded an 82nd Airborne company and qualified as an Army Ranger in the early ’70s. He is quick to point out, as he did in a 2004 floor speech praising then-Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a disabled veteran, that he did not see combat during his time in the Army.

But Democrats say his mix of military background, dedication to policy and lack of any obvious ambition for higher office lend credibility to his arguments on Iraq. It is a combination that sharply contrasts with the personas of many Democrats who have chosen to engage in the debate over the war.

Reed “has a very balanced and thoughtful approach,” Levin said. “He really gets inside issues.”

Senate Democratic leaders have had difficulty, at times, breaking through the cacophony in their own caucus to display unity on Iraq.

As Senate Democrats sought to articulate a consensus position last week, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), a colleague of Reed’s on the Armed Services Committee, reiterated his support for the president’s mission in Iraq while Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean predicted that the war could not be won.

Lieberman’s positioning as a Democratic hawk earned him twin profiles over the weekend in The Washington Post and The New York Times. An examination of the centrist path navigated by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), another colleague of Reed’s on the Armed Services Committee, landed on the Post’s front page Monday.

Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, has been so eager to remain his party’s standard-bearer that a recent Reed response to a Bush speech became a Kerry-Reed event.

There is a dizzying array of Democratic positions on the Iraq issue. Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) very public and controversial call for a redeployment to move American forces out of Iraq has earned him plenty of press. Others have called for a slower withdrawal.

Though Reed disagrees with some of his colleagues on the idea of setting a specific timetable for withdrawal, he is not quick to criticize them. That is consistent with his demeanor in hearings, where he has been known to pressure witnesses without seeking to embarrass them.

“He makes his point, but he’s not terribly combative,” one Democratic aide said.

Reed’s serious and straightforward style may have kept him out of the spotlight in the past.

“Jack who?” a GOP leadership aide said when asked about his more prominent role in Democratic news conferences.

But Reed’s star is rising in his caucus. He ranks fifth out of 11 Democrats on the Armed Services Committee and is seen as a possible future chairman. Only Levin, Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Lieberman outrank him on the panel. Reed briefly served on the Appropriations Committee and could return if the Democratic contingent expands in the future.

Reed has carved out a niche on housing and transit issues as a member of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, where he is the top Democrat on the Housing and Transportation Subcommittee.

He also serves on the Joint Economic Committee, a complex, policy-heavy panel that attracts very few headlines even inside the Beltway.

As a graduate of West Point, Reed retains strong ties to the institution, including occupying one of several congressional seats on the school’s Board of Visitors.

Though Reed has long been active on military issues, this year Democratic leaders sought his assistance in delivering a party message on Iraq.

“He’s an effective, articulate spokesman who can draw on a wealth of experience to help Democrats talk about their views on the war,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

In typically understated fashion, Reed acknowledged that Reid had asked him to be a little more visible.

“Experience and interest combined to give me some insights,” he said.