Harry Reid sparks a dramatic Senate standoff

Senate Holds Rare Closed Door Session
Minority Leader Harry Reid, flanked by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. (L) and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL., speaks to reporters outside of the Senate Chamber after Democrats forced the Senate into a two-hour long closed session.Mark Wilson / Getty Images

On a quiet Indian summer afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid dramatically wrenched the political agenda from the Republican majority Monday by forcing the Senate into secret session.

Reid’s gambit was designed to prod Republicans to agree to speed up “Phase II” of the investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, into how spy data was used or misused in the prelude to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Senate Democrats said Roberts and the Republicans were stalling on the investigation; Republicans disputed that.

The indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s aide Lewis Libby last week offered Democrats a chance to put Iraq intelligence back on the agenda. Reid did so in spectacular fashion.

“The Libby indictment provides a window into what this is really all about, how this 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 said before making the motion which sent the Senate into a closed-door session.

Democratic Whip Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters, “tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the last election, Sen. Roberts said he could not initiate Phase II because of the last election, another year has passed, there is no deadline…. The American people are entitled to this information.”

Frist sees 'a political stunt'
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who sounded angrier than at any moment since he arrived in the Senate ten years ago, derided Reid’s move as “a political stunt.”

“Since I’ve been majority leader, I have to say, not with the previous Democratic leader or the current Democratic leader, have I ever been slapped in the face with such an affront to the leadership of this grand institution,” Frist said.

“For the next year and a half I can’t trust Sen. Reid,” he added.

After Reid sprang his surprise, the atmosphere in the Senate lobby was a cross between a building where a bomb threat had been called in and fog-bound airport waiting lounge where reporters, senators, and staffers milled around not sure what to do next.

Bewilderment, rather than raw anger, was the dominant mood.

Capitol police officers stood by the front door to the chamber to ensure that only senators and approved staffers went on to the floor. The galleries had been cleared.

As far as this reporter could tell from standing in the lobby, there were few senators on the floor.

The great debate on pre-war intelligence may have gotten underway — or perhaps it had not. No one knew, since it was a secret session and senators were deprived of their usual publicity.

In the short term it looked like Reid had outmaneuvered Frist. The standoff was ended when the two leaders agreed to have a group of three senators from each party look into how the Intelligence Committee investigation was proceeding, and to report back to the Senate leaders by Nov. 14.

Once that accord was reached, Roberts took to the floor to dismiss the Democrats’ maneuvering. “We’ve just agreed to do what we already agreed to do – to complete phase II of Intelligence Committee review of prewar intelligence.”

Frist speculated about the Democrats’ motives by saying President Bush’s nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court “had set the Democrats back on their heels. Part of this may be a reaction just to that.”

Master of the rules
Reid was within his rights in using Senate Rule 21 to force a closed session (it takes only two members of the Senate to make that happen).

Reid had proven once again for any student of politics that he who masters the rules can be master of the substance.

The Democratic leader did not give Frist any notice that he’d use the secret session strategy.

All Senate business is conducted by the two party leaders telling each other ahead of time what they will do.

Only very rarely does one side spring a parliamentary surprise on the other.

And — speaking of intelligence — if the Republicans had been overhearing some of the chatter among Democratic strategists since the Libby indictment last Friday, they would have realized that Democrats were inevitably going to try to re-focus the public and news media attention on the issue of intelligence leading to the Iraq war.

Fittingly, Reid sprang his gambit on the Republican just minutes after a grim-looking Vice President Cheney had walked out of the Capitol after meeting with Senate Republicans.

Long-term effects?
A senior Republican Senate aide said the Reid maneuver would poison the waters more deeply.

This aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, tried to peer into the minds of Democrats to discern their motives: “First, they don’t like that (special prosecutor Patrick) Fitzgerald ended his investigation and that was all it was. Second, (Supreme Court nominee Samuel) Alito is up and who knows where the votes are on his (Reid’s) side? Third, there’s a deficit reduction bill on the Senate floor. They (the Democrats) are not in a position of strength.”

But this aide said, “This has longer-term repercussions. The Democrats no longer have any standing to complain about the ‘nuclear option,’” that is, the proposed rule change that would eliminate the use of filibuster to block votes on judicial nominees.

One of the questions looming over the Senate is whether Reid will launch a filibuster of the Alito nomination and whether he can muster the 41 votes to sustain it.

How did Tuesday’s sudden squall compare to the worst of congressional feuding of the past several years?

The partisan acrimony was more bitter and more emotional during the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998 and 1999 than it is now.

Ironically in light of the current debate over Iraq, it was on Dec. 16, 1998 — the day Clinton ordered air strikes on Saddam Hussein  — that Congress hit a low point. At that point, Rep. Jerry Solomon, R- N.Y. said, "Never underestimate a desperate president.... What option is left for getting impeachment off the front page and maybe even postponed?"

The Republicans did not believe that Clinton was launching the air strikes for genuine military purposes. There was nothing that he or anyone could say to convince them otherwise.

California Democrat Rep. Brad Sherman replied to Solomon by saying, "Never underestimate a desperate partisan whose lust for the president's blood causes him to make statements which unintentionally give aid and comfort to the enemy."

The relentless questioning of each other’s motives is reminiscent of the atmosphere today.

But on the Extreme Bitterness scale, 1998 was worse than 2005.