Senator raises profile for gavel handoff

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Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed is raising his public profile as he prepares for the possible chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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Inheriting the gavel is no sure thing, as Democrats are at a growing risk of losing their Senate majority in November.

But Reed, who is serving his fourth term in the Senate, is making preparations to take the place of retiring Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) should his party triumph.

“If the Senate doesn’t flip [to Republicans], he assuredly gets the gavel,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

The senator made a high-profile media appearance Sunday to back President Obama’s decision to launch airstrikes in Iraq. Reed endorsed the military action on “Face the Nation” in what was his first appearance on a Sunday talk show this year.

He followed that up with an appearance on MSNBC, where he said the Obama administration should supply additional training and equipment to Iraqi security faces to roll back the extremist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Reed, a former Army Ranger, is up for reelection but is expected to cruise to victory. He won his last term with 73 percent of the vote, and his Republican opponent, Mark Zaccaria, has unsuccessfully run for Congress twice before.

With his reelection all but assured, Reed has been dipping into his $3.4 million campaign fund to help other Democrats — including members of the Armed Services panel he hopes to lead.

Reed’s political action committee, Narragansett Bay, has doled out around $130,000 in contributions to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and 14 Senate incumbents this election cycle.

The donations include gifts to Armed Service Committee members facing tough reelection races, such as Sen. Mark Udall (Colo.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.), according to Opensecrets.org.

Reed has also given money to the Democratic Senate candidates in Iowa, Georgia and Kentucky, three states where the party thinks they have a good shot at winning.

If Democrats do maintain their majority, Reed, known for his low-key manner, will have to contend for public attention with press-savvy Republicans on the committee like Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Ted Cruz (Texas).

McCain, in particular, is a fixture of news shows, and is in line to take the Armed Services gavel if Republicans win the majority.

Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Reed shouldn’t go “running to the Sunday shows and the microphones.”

“You can diminish your reputation among your colleagues that way,” he said. “That is not going to make him more effective as chairman of that committee, and I think it’d be foolish to change his profile.”

Even though Reed is generally supportive of the president, “he’s just not going to be someone who starts rushing out and criticizing Obama because it will get him attention, or being a super spinner for the president. It’s just not who he is,” Mann said.

Eaglen said that, while it’s not required for the Armed Services Committee chairman to maintain a public profile, it’s “helpful” for a number of reasons, including pressuring leaders to give floor time to the annual defense authorization bill.

The Senate version of the fiscal year 2015 defense spending blueprint has yet to reach the floor even though it was passed out of committee in May.

In a statement to The Hill, the panel’s current ranking Republican, Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), praised his Democratic colleague.

Reed has the “experience necessary to understand the critical issues facing our national security and has earned the respect of his colleagues, which is vital to continuing the bipartisan work of the Armed Services Committee to provide for a strong national defense," Inhofe said.