Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid became the latest Democrat to stray into rhetorical trouble Tuesday, botching statements on three subjects in one news conference — including the fragile health of the chamber's most senior members.
The Nevada Democrat reported that one of them, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was absent because he was receiving a new round of treatment for his brain cancer. Asked if the cancer was in remission, Reid replied, "As far as I know, it is, yes."
Kennedy's office refused to confirm Reid's comments or make any statement in response, the public silence a classic Washington disavowal.
Reid was then asked about Sen. Robert C. Byrd, at 91 the longest-serving senator in history, who was hospitalized over the weekend for an infection. Reid reported that Byrd was to be released from the hospital Tuesday or perhaps later in the week.
"Senator Byrd is improving," responded his spokesman, Jesse Jacobs. "But his doctors, in consultation with his family, have not yet determined when he will be released."
Mangles party position on Gitmo
Reid also mangled his party's position on the congressional news of the day, that Senate Democrats would join their House counterparts in withholding the money President Barack Obama needs to close the Guantanamo Bay prison until Obama comes up with a plan for relocating its prisoners.
But Reid went further than saying he wanted to see a plan for the money before Congress approves it. "We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States," he said.
No one, of course, was talking about releasing terrorism suspects among the American populace. Imprisoning them, perhaps, but not releasing them.
"Part of what we don't want is them be put in prisons in the United States," Reid clarified but digging himself into a bigger hole by departing significantly from some of his colleagues and administration officials. "We don't want them around the United States."
Did the administration put Democrats in an awkward position, asking for the money before setting out how it would be spent?
"Not at all," said Reid.
"Yes," his deputy, Sen. Dick Durbin replied to the same question.
Even the post-gaffe handling of Reid's remarks was awkward. Spokesman Jim Manley, who previously worked for Kennedy for years, swept through the press gallery to clean up after his boss. He retracted Reid's assessment of Kennedy's condition. He clarified Reid's comments about the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Manley's job was no fun at that moment, a reporter observed.
"Not so much," he said.
Not the first troubles for Reid
Kennedy was diagnosed a year ago with incurable brain cancer and has undergone multiple treatments that wouldn't likely be necessary were the disease in remission. He has nonetheless been working behind the scenes on a sweeping health care reform bill that is one of Obama's top priorities.
Byrd, meanwhile, has survived several rounds of rumors about his deteriorating health. He has relished rebutting them with cutting statements or just by showing up on the Senate floor to vote.
It's not the first time Reid has walked into a wall of trouble for commenting on a colleague's medical condition. Who's voting and who's not is crucial in a chamber where 60 votes can shut down filibusters.
Reid also spun positive when discussing the health of South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson after the Democrat suffered a life-threatening brain hemorrhage in December 2006, threatening his party's incoming one-seat majority.
In May 2008, after Johnson had returned to the Senate needing a wheelchair, Reid revealed the rest of the picture. He told Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," that Johnson had been "in a coma for five weeks, near death three or four times during that period of time."
On Tuesday, Reid's world continued to spin, with ample backpedaling.
"Senator Reid will leave the diagnosing to doctors," Manley said late in the day. "But he does look forward to the prospect of Senator Kennedy's return to the Senate as soon as he is able."
Manley also issued a statement with which no one could quibble.
"Tomorrow is another day."