Sen. Reid spends heavily in political capital to in effort to help Obama

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has expended a heavy dose of political capital in recent weeks to help President Obama, despite grumbling within his caucus about the administration.

Democrats have mixed opinions about Reid’s motivation. Some lawmakers say he is doing his job as majority leader by defending the president. A senior Democratic aide, however, said Reid’s is promoting the interests of his caucus, which have begun to dovetail more snugly with Obama’s.

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Reid this month blocked the Defense authorization bill from reaching the floor, taking on Sen. Carl Levin (Mich.), the Democratic chairman of the Armed Services Committee, citing the administration’s opposition to language on terrorist detainees.

Two weeks ago, Reid sparked a heated confrontation with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) by changing Senate precedent to wipe out a potentially embarrassing vote on the original version of Obama’s jobs package.

And Reid did the president a favor a week and a half ago when he brought free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia to the Senate floor despite his personal opposition.

Reid even made a recent foray into presidential campaign politics by taking a swipe at GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney. Reid demanded Romney apologize to Nevada homeowners facing foreclosure after Romney said families struggling to pay their mortgages should be allowed to hit bottom.

“I think a good majority leader tries to work with the president of his party,” said Durbin, who noted helping the president sometimes leads to angry political confrontations.

“This ain’t bean bag around here,” Durbin said.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a close friend of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), said he admires the special brand of toughness Reid has brought to the job.

“Good for Harry Reid. Harry Reid’s a tough guy. If you look at how he grew up, he’s a prizefighter. He’s a tough guy and he’s a good guy,” said Conrad.

A senior Democratic aide close to Reid said the majority leader may have helped Obama in recent weeks but his focus has been on protecting the interests of his caucus.

“Reid didn’t do any of those things at the behest of the White House. He did them for their own reasons. To the extent they helped the White House, so much for the better. Sen. Reid does things for his own reasons and for what’s best for our caucus,” said the Democratic aide.

“He always has to juggle what’s best for constituents and being the president’s point person in the U.S. Senate,” said Jim Manley, a former senior aide to Reid.

Some Democrats facing reelection have been careful to keep their distance from the president.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) skipped an Obama fundraiser in Missouri earlier this month, citing a busy Senate schedule.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has criticized the president’s policies regularly since winning a close special election last year. He must face the voters again next year.

McCaskill said the trade bills Reid brought to the floor were supported by many Senate Democrats.

“Harry Reid shouldn’t be a leader who does only things he personally agrees with,” she said.

Reid was one of 30 Democrats to vote against the Columbia agreement, one of 21 to vote against he Panama agreement and one of 14 to oppose the deal with South Korea.

But wielding his power to block the agreements would have dealt a setback to Obama’s stated goal of doubling national exports by 2014.

The Defense authorization bill is another tough issue for Reid.

Levin struck a deal with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on language addressing the prosecution of terrorist detainees to move the bill out of committee but Reid blocked it from reaching the floor.

Reid says there’s no point in passing the legislation only to have Obama veto it and has urged lawmakers to find a solution. His decision provoked Republican criticism.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Tuesday accused Reid of carrying water for the White House.

“This is not Harry Reid. This is President Obama’s team,” Graham said. “We have a bipartisan plan, but the White House is holding it up ... because they have an irrational view” of how to detain and try suspected terrorists, he said.

Reid’s unexpected maneuver to change Senate precedent on Oct. 6, stripping the minority of the power to force votes on amendments after the chamber has voted to limit debate, also sparked a clash with Republicans.

“We are fundamentally turning the Senate into the House,” McConnell cried out on the Senate floor. “The minority’s out of business.”

Republicans vowed to retaliate and Reid tried to contain the angry fallout by proposing a joint caucus meeting with Republicans later this year.

Reid said he changed the precedent because Republicans were violating the spirit of Senate rules by pushing amendments after cloture had been filed.

Republicans believe Reid overturned the Senate parliamentarian mainly to block McConnell from forcing a vote on a motion to suspend the rules and take up Obama’s jobs package as originally drafted.

Reid’s tactic also spared members of his caucus from voting on the president’s plan, which many opposed because it was paid for by a proposal to limit tax deductions for families earning over $250,000.

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In addition, Reid has not been afraid to take on Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who sits atop of the Republican presidential field, even though throwing political body blows has undermined his popularity in Nevada in the past.

Reid this week said Romney “owes the thousands of Nevada families struggling to keep a roof over their heads an apology," according to the CBS affiliate in Las Vegas, after Romney said the president should not try to help homeowners who are under water.

In July, Reid bashed Romney as a flip-flopper for reversing his positions on gay marriage and abortion and running away from his role in reforming Massachusetts’s healthcare law — which later became the template for Obama’s national healthcare reforms.

Manley, who advised Reid during his difficult reelection in 2010, said Reid suffered political damage for being an outspoken critic of former President George W. Bush.

“He served as a vocal opponent of former President George Bush,” said Manley. “He didn’t necessarily want to take that role on but felt he had to and he did at some peril to his political standing.” 

John T. Bennett contributed to this report.