The new leader of Senate Democrats sent a shiver down liberals' backs this month when he seemed to endorse conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as a possible chief...

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WASHINGTON — The new leader of Senate Democrats sent a shiver down liberals’ backs this month when he seemed to endorse conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as a possible chief justice of the United States.

Sen. Harry Reid’s opposition to abortion was well-known and generally accepted, liberal activists said, but this was something else. Some wondered if Senate Democrats had replaced Tom Daschle of South Dakota with a considerably more conservative lawmaker who might yield to Republicans, especially in light of the party’s four-seat net loss in November’s elections.

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The answer is no, according to a review of the Nevada senator’s voting record, assessments by his colleagues, and his comments in a recent interview. Reid by most measures is a mainstream Democrat, landing slightly to the right of his party’s average score on congressional ratings issued by a wide range of interest groups.

“No privatization”

And by his accounts, Reid, a former boxer, is ready to go toe-to-toe with President Bush and the Senate’s GOP majority on the biggest issues facing the 109th Congress.

“As far as I’m concerned, there will be no privatization” of even a small portion of workers’ Social Security contributions, he said, rejecting what the president trumpeted as a priority at a White House conference last week. And Senate Republicans, he said, “will rue the day” they try to carry out a threat to end a senator’s right to filibuster judicial nominees.

Those are the words of a battler, not an appeaser, say those who know Reid, who turns 65 Thursday.

Moreover, Reid’s recent hiring decisions signal he is comfortable with his party’s liberal wing. To help run a rapid-response communications center, which some call the “war room,” Reid has hired James Manley and Phil Singer, former aides to Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., respectively.

“No one is talking about abandoning our core values,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., recently elected to the party’s second-ranking post, Democratic whip. When Senate Democratic leader Daschle lost his re-election race last month, Durbin said, Reid’s “election as leader was so quick and overwhelming that it is an indication of how he has unified this caucus. … We’re in good shape and in good spirits.”

Aside from abortion, Reid has sided with his party’s majority on nearly all major issues of the past several years. He voted against Bush’s tax cuts, John Ashcroft’s confirmation as attorney general and a proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He voted to authorize military force in Iraq and for the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law revisions.

A friend of organized labor, Reid often has opposed major trade agreements, including the granting of permanent normal trade status to China in 2000. While not as overtly partisan as some colleagues, he co-sponsored a resolution condemning Bob Jones University in South Carolina for alleged racist policies after presidential candidate George W. Bush campaigned there in 2000.

Similar ratings

The American Conservative Union gave Reid a 21 voting score in its latest rankings, slightly higher than the Senate Democratic mean of 18. In a similar vein, the liberal Americans for Democratic Action gave Reid a lifetime score of 76, a bit lower than his Senate caucus’s average in the mid-80s.

The National Taxpayers Union scored him at 17, not the lowest among Democrats but a “failing” grade nonetheless.

The environmentally oriented League of Conservation Voters gave Reid a comparatively high score of 84 in its most recent rating, even though Reid — who grew up in the mining town of Searchlight, Nev. — “is not always with us on mining issues,” league President Deb Callahan said. “The environmental community understands that,” she said, adding that in general, “Reid has been a consistent friend and champion.”

Abortion is the main issue on which Reid, a Mormon, differs from his party’s orthodoxy. In 1999, he was one of two Senate Democrats to oppose an amendment expressing support for the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. He has voted to ban a procedure that opponents call “partial birth” abortion. But activists on both sides say he never has tried to persuade the Democratic caucus to join him in such stands.

“We have absolute faith” that he will oppose judicial nominees unless they “will protect individual liberties and not roll them back,” said Elizabeth Cavendish, interim president of the abortion-rights group NARAL.

Her counterpart, Douglas Johnson, head of National Right to Life, said: “I would expect, as the (Democratic) leader, Reid would continue to work to obstruct or gut major pro-life legislation.”

Stand on Scalia

Perhaps Reid’s biggest challenge is to adjust to a leadership job in which his every word will be scrutinized by scores of interest groups and news organizations. He stumbled, friends and aides say, on Dec. 5 when Tim Russert of NBC’s “Meet the Press” asked whether Reid could support Scalia to succeed the ailing William Rehnquist as chief justice.

“If he can overcome the ethics problems that have arisen,” Reid began, referring to allegations of a conflict of interest involving a case Scalia heard. Reid went on to say that Scalia “is one smart guy. And I disagree with many of the results that he arrives at, but his reasons for arriving at those results are very hard to dispute.”

Accounts of the interview alarmed many liberal and abortion-rights activists who consider the staunchly conservative Scalia unacceptable. Several colleagues urged Reid to clarify his remarks. “I talked to Harry about it,” Durbin said, recalling that Reid urged people to “listen to what he said.”

Transcripts of the NBC interview show that Reid never clearly endorsed Scalia as chief justice, and he mixed praise for the justice’s intellect with questions about his ethical behavior.

In the recent interview in his Capitol office, Reid urged Bush to consult with Democrats and then pick Supreme Court nominees who will not trigger partisan war in the Senate.

“If he just wants to poke his finger in our eye, then he can do away with the advice and consent part of the Constitution,” Reid said. “But if he wants to really move forward and have as little acrimony as possible,” the president could quietly show top Democrats a list of possible nominees and say, “I know you don’t like any of them, but tell me who you like better than the rest.”