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Harry Reid, marshaling his troops from the Ritz


WASHINGTON » Some of the biggest decisions in Washington these days are being made not at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, but in a well-appointed one-bedroom condominium at the Ritz-Carlton on M Street.

From there, Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate’s battered Democratic leader, is conducting foreign and domestic policy while he recovers from a vicious exercise accident that left the sight in one eye imperiled and bones in his face shattered. His right eye was so filled with blood that he underwent extensive surgery Monday to drain it and have some of the facial bones repaired. The eye may need to be drained again in a second procedure, doctors told him. But he said his vision was returning.

Not one who does very well with idle time, Reid, 75, still starts every day at 6 a.m., rising from an overstuffed leather recliner in his living room where doctors have told him he should sleep. They do not want him lying down in bed and rolling over, possibly reinjuring his face.

It is just a short walk from the living room to his den, where he takes a seat at the same desk he once used as a lawyer in Las Vegas and starts making calls. Several white orchids — a get-well and get-back-to-the-Capitol present from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader — sit next to his phone.

All month, he has been glued to that phone while huddling with senior staff members who shuffle in and out of the condo. He orchestrated his party’s maneuvering to delay the passage of the Keystone XL pipeline bill that cleared the Senate on Thursday. Now he is plotting his party’s approach to a contentious homeland security funding bill that is expected to hit the Senate floor next week, complete with provisions that would undo President Barack Obama’s new immigration policy — measures that Democrats oppose.

"I’m very afraid of what is going on around the world, and we the United States of America are quibbling over funding homeland security?" Reid said, adding that Republicans realized they would need to relent and send an acceptable bill to the president.

"They know it is a loser for them," he said.

He made time Wednesday for a call from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who was looking for Reid’s blessing to deliver a speech to Congress in March. The speaking invitation, arranged by Speaker John A. Boehner, has infuriated the White House and congressional Democrats and could be hurting Netanyahu’s cause with lawmakers.

Reid sternly but politely told the prime minister — who said he had been advised that Reid was a "mensch" — as much. But he did not tell the prime minister to cancel the speech.

"I didn’t feel that would be appropriate," he said. "That’s a decision he has to make."

Growing ever restless, the senator is itching to get back to the Capitol. And if all goes as planned, he will be back Monday and gradually start to spend more time there.

During the interview, which he granted at the request of The New York Times, he stressed that he was physically and mentally sharp.

He and his staff members are determined to show that the injury has not debilitated him as he faces re-election next year — a race he says he intends to pursue, despite some doubts in the political world.

And after weathering some internal party unrest over his leadership following the steep election losses in November, Reid does not want anyone to get any ideas about an opening at the top.

In addition, some Democrats — including Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who is filling in on the floor for Reid — were initially worried about pushing back too hard against the new Republican majority for fear of being branded with the obstructionist label they applied to Republicans for so long.

"It’s important I get back," he said. "You need someone to be able to say no. That’s the hardest thing to do, you know."

As the first month of the new Congress draws to a close, Reid said he believed Democrats were becoming more comfortable with their role — one he hopes is temporary — as a cooperative minority party in the Senate. Democrats made their points on the Keystone bill, he said, but still allowed it to progress without employing all the delaying tactics at their disposal.

"What we have tried to show is that we believe in a Senate that works," Reid said. "We are letting the Senate operate."

Reid makes no apologies for his approach, when he ran the Senate, in limiting floor fights like the one that just occurred over the Keystone legislation — a strategy that some in both parties say hurt Democrats in the election. Reid said he had tried a more open process earlier, and that Republicans had taken advantage of it and shown no real interest in cooperating.

"We went through that ourselves, and we spent weeks and weeks on abortion, and we finally got enough votes to beat that," he said. In any event, he said the measure of the Senate was not in votes on amendments.

"It is a question of, does the Senate operate?" he said. "We are letting the Senate operate."

As for his own abilities, there remain certain things he is not supposed to do, like read, which strains his eyes, or walk outside, where he is more at risk of injury. He has adjusted by listening to audiobooks — he is on his third, a biography of Alan Turing, the British mathematician and Nazi code-breaker — and walking on the basketball court at his gym for an hour a day.

"I’ve already done 50 today," he said, boasting of how many minutes he had walked. "And I’ll do another 15 or so."

He is, however, permanently adjusting one aspect of his workout routine: He will no longer use the rubber tension bands that have been part of his fitness regimen for years. It was when one of the bands snapped that he was hurtled across the room of his home in Nevada and into a cabinet.

"I damn sure am giving up my bands," he said.

An amateur boxer in his younger days, Reid has absorbed some blows. But he said this was like nothing he had ever felt.

"I fought for two years, and I got hit pretty hard," he said. "But they were all baby slaps compared to this. I really smashed my face."

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