Where in the World Is Harry Reid?

As more lawmakers call on Obama to make a public case before striking Syria, the Senate’s top Democrat is remarkably mum on his position.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks to reporters after the Senate stepped back from the brink of a political meltdown, clearing the way for confirmation of one of President Barack Obama's long-stalled nominations, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 16, 2013. 
National Journal
Michael Catalin
Add to Briefcase
Michael Catalin
Aug. 30, 2013, 12:06 p.m.

In Nevada, some 7,300 miles from Dam­as­cus, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id got an up­date on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s po­s­i­tion on the Syr­i­an con­flict this af­ter­noon.

His aides say the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity lead­er might be half a world away from the war and half a con­tin­ent away from Wash­ing­ton, but he’s as plugged in­to the gov­ern­ment’s con­ver­sa­tions about how to pro­ceed in Syr­ia as any­one in Con­gress.

But the Sen­ate’s top Demo­crat has kept a de­cidedly low pro­file as Pres­id­ent Obama wrestles with wheth­er to send mis­siles in­to Syr­ia after Bashar al-As­sad’s gov­ern­ment used chem­ic­al weapons on its cit­izens.

In­deed, un­like a hand­ful of oth­er Demo­crats, Re­id has not yet said how he prefers the ad­min­is­tra­tion to pro­ceed. One of Re­id’s top lieu­ten­ants and the No. 3 Demo­crat in the Sen­ate, Chuck Schu­mer of New York, at­ten­ded an in­tel­li­gence brief­ing by tele­con­fer­ence on Thursday with U.S. of­fi­cials and sug­ges­ted he would back the ad­min­is­tra­tion if it chose to launch a strike. (Re­id did not join the call, and Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell also did not par­ti­cip­ate.)

“A lim­ited ac­tion to knock out his cap­ab­il­ity of de­liv­er­ing chem­ic­al weapons in the fu­ture could be ap­pro­pri­ate, but we have to be very care­ful not to let our in­volve­ment es­cal­ate,” Schu­mer said in a state­ment.

Asked why his lieu­ten­ants shared their po­s­i­tions while Re­id has not, a Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide said it was too early to for­mu­late a po­s­i­tion. “Things are still de­vel­op­ing,” the aide said.

The reas­on for keep­ing such a low pro­file, ac­cord­ing to former Re­id aide Jim Man­ley, is straight­for­ward. There’s little up­side for the ma­jor­ity lead­er to speak up be­fore the pres­id­ent has made his de­cision pub­lic.

“He’s pre­dis­posed to sup­port the pres­id­ent and would urge his col­leagues to do so as well,” Man­ley said.

Still, it seems Re­id soon will have to con­front a ques­tion that’s gain­ing mo­mentum: Should the pres­id­ent seek con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion be­fore launch­ing a mil­it­ary strike in Syr­ia? A grow­ing num­ber of law­makers, in­clud­ing at least one Sen­ate Demo­crat, are clam­or­ing for such an au­thor­iz­a­tion. Rep. Scott Ri­gell, R-Va., re­cruited some 140 law­makers, in­clud­ing 21 Demo­crats, to sign a pe­ti­tion ur­ging Obama to get con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion for a mil­it­ary strike.

House Speak­er John Boehner is call­ing for the pres­id­ent to tell Con­gress and the pub­lic what he’s plan­ning to do, stress­ing the need for the White House to con­sult with law­makers.

“If the pres­id­ent be­lieves this in­form­a­tion makes a mil­it­ary re­sponse im­per­at­ive, it is his re­spons­ib­il­ity to ex­plain to Con­gress and the Amer­ic­an people the ob­ject­ives, strategy, and leg­al basis for any po­ten­tial ac­tion,” said Boehner spokes­man Brendan Buck.

There’s at least one good reas­on to sug­gest Re­id might not in­sist the pres­id­ent get Con­gress’ bless­ing. Some Re­pub­lic­ans are already sig­nal­ing they would not au­thor­ize an at­tack.

“We can’t simply launch a few mis­siles and hope for the best,” said Sen. James In­hofe, the rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an on the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee.

That’s a point not lost on Sen­ate Demo­crats. For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Sen. Bob Men­en­dez said that while he would like to see the pres­id­ent seek con­gres­sion­al sup­port be­fore a launch, Men­en­dez poin­ted out that un­der the War Powers Act, the pres­id­ent has the au­thor­ity to en­gage the armed forces for up to 60 days without le­gis­lat­ive per­mis­sion.

A timeline for when Re­id might stake a po­s­i­tion is murky. In May, Re­id in­dic­ated he pre­ferred a cau­tious ap­proach to war. Even as re­ports swirled then that chem­ic­al weapons had been used, the ma­jor­ity lead­er showed little eager­ness to re­act quickly.

“My per­son­al feel­ing is that the evid­ence shows that [As­sad] has used chem­ic­al weapons. But re­mem­ber, we have been through this be­fore,” Re­id said, ac­cord­ing to the Las Ve­gas Sun, re­call­ing the Ir­aq war. “The yel­low cake [urani­um], re­mem­ber that? There was a rush to judg­ment and a war; that was one of the reas­ons we rushed to war.”

What We're Following See More »
Chef Jose Andres Campaigns With Clinton
2 hours ago
White House Weighs in Against Non-Compete Contracts
2 hours ago

"The Obama administration on Tuesday called on U.S. states to ban agreements prohibiting many workers from moving to their employers’ rivals, saying it would lead to a more competitive labor market and faster wage growth. The administration said so-called non-compete agreements interfere with worker mobility and states should consider barring companies from requiring low-wage workers and other employees who are not privy to trade secrets or other special circumstances to sign them."

House Investigators Already Sharpening Their Spears for Clinton
3 hours ago

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz plans to spend "years, come January, probing the record of a President Hillary Clinton." Chaffetz told the Washington Post: “It’s a target-rich environment. Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good.”

No Lobbying Clinton’s Transition Team
6 hours ago

Hillary Clinton's transition team has in place strict rules to limit the influence that lobbyists could have "in crafting the nominee’s policy agenda." The move makes it unlikely, at least for now, that Clinton would overturn Obama's executive order limiting the role that lobbyists play in government

Federal Government Employees Giving Money to Clinton
6 hours ago

Federal employees from 14 agencies have given nearly $2 million in campaign donations in the presidential race thus far, and 95 percent of the donations, totaling $1.9 million, have been to the Clinton campaign. Employees at the State Department, which Clinton lead for four years, has given 99 percent of its donations to the Democratic nominee.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.