Troubled Sen. Ensign tests relationship with fellow Nevadan Reid

Sen. John Ensign, who is fighting for his political survival, has pushed the boundaries of a nonaggression pact with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but so far the relationship has held up.

The two senators from Nevada will throw a joint office party this month, despite Ensign’s recent statement that he is staying in Congress in part to bolster the effort to defeat Reid in next year’s election.

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Reid, a Democrat, says he is unfazed by his Republican colleague’s statement, and that it does not violate an unusual nonaggression pact between the two lawmakers.

“It hasn’t changed anything with me,” Reid said on Tuesday.

But some political experts in Nevada think Ensign clearly took a shot a Reid to stabilize his own standing with conservatives back home.

Dan Hart, a Democratic political consultant based in Las Vegas, said it seems Ensign has abandoned the nonaggression agreement with Reid.

“He’s fighting for his own political survival, and in his mind that takes precedence over any relationships he had in the past,” said Hart.

Ensign told a Las Vegas radio station on Monday that he would not resign his Senate seat because doing so would divert resources from the effort to defeat Reid in 2010.

“If I resign, we have a second Senate race,” Ensign said in an interview with KXNT, making reference to a special election that would be needed to fill his seat. “For the people who want to beat Harry Reid, if you have a second Senate race in this state, you take the attention off of Harry Reid. … I think that would hurt the conservative cause.”

Ensign’s comments surprised political experts in Nevada, who have grown accustomed to Reid and Ensign treating each other gingerly to avoid a feud that could hurt them both.

But the calculus for Ensign appears to have changed as he works to mend his frayed relations with GOP conservatives amid resignation calls over the high-profile sex scandal with Cynthia Hampton, a former campaign aide.

Ensign has struggled to escape from the ethics cloud hanging over him as Doug Hampton, Cynthia’s husband and Ensign’s former chief of staff, has kept the story in the news.

Jon Ralston, a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun and one of Nevada’s most prominent political experts, said Ensign’s radio commentary about Reid “shows that when push comes to shove, he will throw anyone under the bus.”

 Nevertheless, Reid has sought to maintain his friendly relationship with Ensign, which some Nevada political insiders think is important for Reid politically.

 Jon Summers, a spokesman for Reid, said his boss and Ensign “have a good relationship and a long history of working together on important Nevada issues.

 “That won’t change,” he said.

 The Reid-Ensign holiday party is a longstanding tradition usually held in the Senate Mansfield Room that draws the family members, staff and former staff of both lawmakers.

 The lawmakers’ staffs have become friendly over the years, working together on many issues important to the state, such as shutting down the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and promoting tourism to the state, according to a Senate aide.

 Reid’s office has kept silent on Ensign’s political troubles as details of the scandal spilled out in news reports, curtly referring to them as a “personal matter.” The staffs continued to send out joint press statements touting their shared legislative accomplishments after the scandal broke.

 Ensign downplayed his latest comments when interviewed on Tuesday.

 “I didn’t say anything against Sen. Reid; we still have a great relationship,” said Ensign, who explained he was merely underlining the fact that his resignation would have wider political implications for the state. “I was just pointing out that is something for people who are calling for me to resign [to consider], that it’s a factor.”

 Ensign has tested his détente with Reid before. Last month he said he would campaign for Reid’s GOP opponent next year.

 But Ensign said that does not amount to political action against Reid.

 “I will campaign for his opponent, I won’t campaign against [Reid],” said Ensign. “I won’t say anything negative. We have that agreement. We still have that agreement.”

 Ralston, the Las Vegas political analyst, believes the nonaggression pact is of more benefit to Reid than to Ensign, especially in the run-up to Reid’s difficult reelection.

 “It’s an unbalanced nonaggression pact in Reid’s favor where he has had everything to gain and nothing to lose,” said Ralston. “Reid loves having Ensign in the Senate, which is a problem for Republicans.”

 Ensign, who lost to Reid by fewer than 500 votes in a 1998 Senate race, has long been seen as a potential threat to Reid. He was for a long time the most popular Republican in the state, which voted for former President George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Reid, by comparison, has traditionally had shakier poll numbers, according to Ralston.

 The scandal dealt a serious blow to Ensign’s political standing, but Reid still has an interest in preserving a good relationship, political analysts say. The simple reason is that Ensign’s troubles deflect negative attention away from Reid.

 Former Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.), who served alongside Reid in the upper chamber, called the nonaggression pact between Reid and Ensign “a delicate high-wire act.”

 He said it “helps Reid, in some sense, that Ensign is in a weak position,” because business leaders in Nevada will be less likely to support an ouster of Reid at a time when there are questions about how much Ensign can deliver for the state.