Just before noon today, Sharron Angle pressed Harry Reid to pick a side: “As the Majority Leader, Harry Reid is usually President Obama’s mouthpiece in the U.S. Senate, and yet he remains silent on this issue,” read a statement from her communications director, Jarrod Agen. “Reid has a responsibility to stand up and say no to the mosque at Ground Zero or once again side with President Obama.”
By about 3 p.m., he made his decision: he would publicly break from Obama — a move that would come as a surprise to many in his party.
“The First Amendment protects freedom of religion,” spokesman Jim Manley said in a statement. “Sen. Reid respects that but thinks that the mosque should be built some place else.”
Manley tells TPMDC that he notified the White House “this morning” and gave a courtesy call to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s staff in the hours between then and his statement.
“We were asked to respond,” Manley said. “At some point today we decided to do so… Senator Reid felt we needed to answer the question. You can decide to duck it or you can decide to take it on and at some point we decided to address it.”
But many Democrats were left in the dark, including at the DCCC and DSCC — the campaign committees in charge of securing Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, whose members are already facing pressure to come out against the proposed community center. Aides there were taken by surprise.
Some Democratic aides were downright angry, though none reached by TPMDC would comment on the record.
“To be honest, it didn’t come across my radar screen,” Manley said candidly. “Maybe I should’ve put in a call [to the committees] as well.”
Several Democratic aides noted that, his handling of the issue aside, Reid couldn’t easily duck the issue after Obama waded into it last week.
The White House for it part is publicly defending him. “As the president said on Friday night, he respects that Americans of all political persuasions will have different opinions on this issue,” said White House spokesman Bill Burton said. “Senator Reid is a fiercely independent individual and the president believes that is one of his strengths as a leader.”
What remains unclear is whether or not vulnerable Democratic members, cowed by the GOP, will now feel they have cover to side with Reid, and, by extension, the Republicans. The guidance for them from party leaders, is simple: 9/11 shouldn’t be politicized, and any decisions regarding the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” site should be left to religious leaders in New York and Mayor Bloomberg.
Within minutes of Reid’s statement, of course, Republicans began demanding that Democrats choose between the Senate leader and the President. Reporters will no doubt follow suit, and that leaves Democrats hoping that the story will lose its legs by week’s end.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.