112th Congress poses challenges for Reid after his grueling race

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who survived a tough reelection race by showcasing his independence from President Obama, must now decide how to position Senate Democrats for 2012.

Reid established his independence early in the election cycle when he declared during a January 2009 interview: “I don’t work for Obama.”

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Reid also broke with Obama at the height of his reelection campaign, in August, when he declared his opposition to the construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks.

He will now have to manage the political priorities of Democratic colleagues who want to show that they are not a rubber stamp for Obama in the run-up to the 2012 election.

The anti-incumbent, Tea Party-fueled wave that gave Republicans control of six more Senate seats shows no sign of abating. Many of the 21 Democrats (not including two independents) facing reelection in 2012 are nervous. 

“I think there’s going to be a lot of reassessment about what we do to protect incumbents,” said former Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.), who served two terms in the upper chamber alongside Reid. He said Democrats in swing states will need to show independence from the president. 

Reid has already begun to lay the groundwork to blame Republicans for obstruction if they don’t accept his invitation to pass legislation jointly, an argument he made for much of the 111th Congress.

“Republicans must take their responsibility to solve the problems of middle-class Americans,” he told reporters during a Wednesday afternoon conference call. “No is not the answer. It has to be yes. Not [a Democratic] yes, but a combined yes.”

At an earlier press conference in Las Vegas, Reid emphasized his desire to work with Republicans but also issued a warning.

When asked about Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) statement that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” Reid called that goal a “road to nowhere.”

The morning after his big win, Reid held a conference call with Senate Democrats to hash out their post-election strategy. He said his colleagues talked about the importance of extending tax cuts to middle-class families, pledging to focus on the issue like a laser.

Focused on his own reelection, Reid spent the second half of 2010 pushing legislation to the Senate floor that seemed intended to rev up the Democratic base, such as a bill granting legal status to the children of illegal immigrants who meet certain requirements.

Democratic strategists say the focus over the next two years will be to bring independent voters back to the party by passing bills to create jobs and strengthen the financial security of middle-class voters.

“If people are going to spend the next two years worrying about the base, we’re going to be in the permanent minority,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and former House leadership aide.

Democratic strategists say Obama and Senate Democrats up for reelection need to point to a list of bipartisan accomplishments in the campaign two years from now.

“I think Reid’s strategy is going to be to follow Obama’s strategy, which is to work with Republicans to get things done,” Elmendorf said. “He’s going to have a bunch of members up for reelection in 2012 and have the view that we need to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, said Senate Democrats would work closely with Obama to strengthen their position with the GOP. “One thing I think you’re going to see is very close coordinating with the White House,” he said.

Obama on Wednesday said he spoke with Republican congressional leaders on election night and told them he is “very eager to sit down with members of both parties and figure out how we can move forward together.”

But many Democrats are already highly skeptical that Republicans will be in any mood to compromise after their strategy of “Just say no” netted them more than 60 seats in the House and at least six Senate seats.

“Reid should do what he has been doing, which is to offer the olive branch,” said David Di Martino, a former Senate Democratic aide and a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog. “But people should expect the Republicans to do what they have been doing, which is stick it back in Reid’s eye.”

McConnell told reporters at a press conference Wednesday morning that Republicans would not compromise to enact policies that he does not believe have popular support.

“We’ll work with the administration when they agree with the people and confront them when they don’t,” said McConnell, who called the election a “referendum on the administration and the Democratic majority here in Congress.”