Democrats on Sunday rallied to the defense of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from a political firestorm caused by his newly reported remarks during the 2008 presidential campaign describing Barack Obama as “light-skinned” who chose to speak “with no Negro dialect.”
“I think if you look at the reports as I have, it was all in the context of saying positive things about Senator Obama,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine. “It definitely was in the context of recognizing in Senator Obama a great candidate and future president.”
Mr. Reid apologized to Mr. Obama on Saturday, and the president issued a statement accepting the apology and saying he considered the matter closed.
The Nevada Democrat, a pivotal figure in Mr. Obama’s hopes of passing a health care reform bill and other top agenda items, said later Sunday that he had no intention of resigning his leadership post or his Senate seat, as Republican lawmakers began demanding Sunday.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said Mr. Reid should not resign and defended his remark as just a “mistake.”
“Clearly, the leader misspoke. He has also apologized. He’s not only apologized to the president, I think he’s apologized to all of the black leadership that he could reach,” she said. “So the president has accepted the apology, and it would seem to me that the matter should be closed.”
In a private conversation reported in a new book, “Game Change” by journalists Mark Halperin of Time and John Heilemann of New York magazine, Mr. Reid described Mr. Obama as an ideal candidate for the 2008 presidential campaign because he was a “light-skinned” black man “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
While Democrats rallied to the Senate leader’s side, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele mocked Mr. Kaine’s defense and he called on Mr. Reid to resign.
“If [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell had said those very words, then this chairman and this president would be calling for his head, and they would be labeling every Republican in the country a racist for saying exactly what this chairman’s just said,” Mr. Steele said.
Mr. Steele also compared Mr. Reid’s remark to comments by Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, in 2002. Mr. Lott, the Senate majority leader at the time, said at the 100th birthday celebration of 1948 presidential candidate Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina that “if the rest of the country had followed [Mississippi’s] lead” in supporting Mr. Thurmond, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years.”
Mr. Lott’s remark was considered an endorsement of Mr. Thurmond’s segregationist past, and he was quickly drummed out of the Senate leadership post.
“There is this standard where the Democrats feel that they can say these things, and they can apologize when it comes from the mouths of their own. But if it comes from anyone else, it’s racism,” said Mr. Steele, who is black. “It’s either racist or it’s not. And it’s inappropriate, absolutely.”
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement that Mr. Reid should step down, calling his comments “embarrassing and racially insensitive.”
“It’s difficult to see this situation as anything other than a clear double standard on the part of Senate Democrats and others,” Mr. Cornyn said.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday” that “if [Mr. Lott] should resign, then Harry Reid should.” He decried what he called a “double standard” and said, “I’d like to see the same standard applied to both” Senate party leaders.
Mr. Reid, who has a history of verbal gaffes and is facing a tough re-election fight in November, said later Sunday through his office that he was not stepping down.
“Senator Reid will stay in his position as majority leader and will run for re-election,” said the statement from his office, boasting of Mr. Reid’s “long record of addressing issues that are important to the African-American community.”
“Republican critics who are looking to politicize the issue can’t say the same,” said the remarks by the veteran Democratic lawmaker.
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island joined other Democrats in saying Mr. Reid’s apology and Mr. Obama’s statement were enough, rejecting comparisons to the Lott episode.
“I think that’s a totally different context. Harry Reid made a misstatement,” Mr. Reed said. “He owned up to it. He apologized. I think he is mortified by the statement he’s made. And I don’t think he should step down.”
Mrs. Feinstein also said that “I saw no Democrats jumping out there and condemning Sen. Lott.”
But several Democrats — including Mrs. Feinstein and Mr. Reid — did target Mr. Lott after his remarks, and some quickly called for his resignation.
“This statement casts a dark shadow over Sen. Lott’s ability to be a credible party leader,” Mrs. Feinstein said in 2002, according to an Inland Valley Daily Bulletin news report.
“I can tell you, if a Democratic leader said such a thing, they would not be allowed to keep their position,” Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, said of Mr. Lott in 2002.
Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, also called on Mr. Lott to resign, saying, “I simply do not believe the country can today afford to have someone who has made these statements again and again be the leader of the United States Senate,” according to a Boston Globe article.
According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Mr. Reid at the time denounced Mr. Lott’s remarks as “not good for America; it’s repugnant.” When Mr. Lott resigned his leadership post, Mr. Reid observed that the Mississippi Republican “had no alternative” because he had “dug himself a hole.”