Harry Reid speaks so quietly that reporters who interview the Senate minority leader in a breeze have to hold their tape recorders to his chin, as though they were giving him a shave. Some liberals find him too soft-spoken. They didn't like his caution during Roberts' nomination and his quasi-support for Miers'. Yesterday, all he could do was gripe that President Bush hadn't called before announcing his new Supreme Court nominee. According to the Constitution, he explained Monday to a group of reporters, senators are supposed to offer "advice and consent" on nominees. All he got was a 10-second phone call from Chief of Staff Andy Card when news of Samuel Alito's nomination was already all over the airwaves. (Andy: "I guess you've heard." Reid: "Yup." Click.)
Late this afternoon, Sen. Reid did more than complain about White House railroading. He shut down the Senate over it. In a rare secret session, he called for the entire body to convene behind closed doors to talk about the intelligence that led to the Iraq war. Reid invoked Senate Rule 21 allowing closed secret sessions necessary to discuss classified information. The C-SPAN cameras were switched off and the lights lowered.
Reid was trying to thwart White House efforts to move past the Scooter Libby indictment. Yesterday, Bush had everyone talking about Alito. Today he unveiled a big program to prepare for a possible outbreak of avian flu. Reid wants to change the subject back. "The Libby indictment provides a window into what this is really about," he said on the floor of the Senate today in regular session, "how the administration manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to sell the war in Iraq and attempted to destroy those who dared to challenge its actions."
Reid's tantrum was entirely symbolic because while he could force the secret session he can't force a full investigation, but it's just the kind of plate-throwing that liberals in his party have been crying out for. They'll no doubt be delighted by the outrage in the GOP. Republicans complained Reid's move violated the Senate's tradition of courtesy and consent. Recent closed sessions called to discuss chemical weapons and Bill Clinton's impeachment were agreed to by the leaders of both parties beforehand. But there was nothing in Senate rules that allowed them to stop him.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said the chamber was "hijacked" by Democrats. "Once again, it shows the Democrats use scare tactics," he complained, sounding as impotent and frustrated as Reid had the day before. "They have no conviction. They have no principles. They have no ideas. But this is the ultimate. Since I've been majority leader, I'll have to say, not with the previous Democratic leader or the current Democratic leader have ever I been slapped in the face with such an affront to the leadership of this grand institution."
I should have seen Reid winding up for this punch yesterday. When I asked him to assess President Bush's political fortunes at a lunch with reporters, Reid started what sounded like a folksy anecdote. "When I was in eighth grade in Searchlight, Nev., some new kid moved into town and I picked a fight with him," he said, explaining that he thought delivering one drubbing would be sufficient. "That was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made. People can always come back. You can knock them down and they can still come back to cause you a lot of trouble."
Bush was the annoying pest in his analogy, but Sen. Reid could have been talking about himself.