WASHINGTON (AP) — If anyone thought Sen. Harry Reid’s near-death political experience last fall would chasten the Senate majority leader, think again.
The Nevada Democrat is back in his familiar perch, directing the Senate’s actions and firing shoot-from-the-lip zingers at powerful politicians, including President Barack Obama.
Shortly before Obama used his State of the Union speech to say he would veto any bill with lawmaker-targeted spending projects, known as "earmarks," Reid struck pre-emptively.
The president "has enough power already," he told reporters, and Obama’s effort was just a "lot of pretty talk."
A day after Obama’s speech, Reid was no more diplomatic. The president should "back off" on his earmarks push, Reid told NBC Nightly News.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that the disagreement is serious for a president and his party’s Senate leader. Asked whether Obama and Reid would have a "come to Jesus meeting," Gibbs quipped: "I don’t know who would be Jesus."
Turning serious, Gibbs said Obama was clear about curbing earmarks. "We’re going to make some very, very tough decisions," he said.
Reid’s freewheeling rhetorical style touches foreign policy, too. Last week, as Obama was preparing to host a state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao, Reid told a Nevada TV station that Hu "is a dictator." As he sometimes does after making startling remarks, Reid offered a partial retraction.
"Maybe I shouldn’t have said ‘dictator’," he said. "But they have a different type of government than we have, and that is an understatement."
Many Washingtonians would do almost anything to snag a White House state dinner invitation, but Reid declined his. Those who know him weren’t surprised. A Mormon who doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, Reid rarely attends dinners, parties and other social events that lubricate much of Washington’s political scene.
Soft-spoken and outwardly bland, Reid, 72, is well-liked by his Senate colleagues. But he has never been wildly popular in Nevada, and many insiders predicted he would lose his 2010 bid for a fifth term.
After a divided Nevada Republican electorate nominated tea party favorite Sharron Angle, who had scant political experience, Reid skated through to re-election.
If the costly and bruising campaign humbled Reid, he doesn’t show it. His jibes at Hu and Obama echoed earlier comments that sent his press team scrambling to explain or soften them.
In 2005 Reid told a high school class that President George W. Bush was a "loser" and a "liar." He later apologized for the "loser" comment, noting that Bush was twice elected president. But he never retracted the "liar" label.
Such remarks don’t appear to have diminished Reid’s ability to guide his Democratic caucus and to win a fair share of battles in the hard-to-govern Senate. On Thursday, he reached an accord with GOP leaders to head off a bid, led mainly by first-term Democrats, to weaken senators’ filibuster powers.
Under the handshake agreement, Republicans will filibuster fewer bills if Democrats give them more chances to offer amendments.
In a Senate floor speech, Reid said Republicans have abused their powers to delay legislation. He added, however, "I know Republicans are equally frustrated at me" for sometimes blocking amendments.
As for Obama, he’s sticking to his view that a White House-imposed earmark ban would infringe on Congress’s rights and powers.
"I’m not changing my position," Reid said in an interview Thursday. Reid said he gets along well with Obama, but added, "that doesn’t mean he’s always right."