In a blunt private comment, Rep. Dina Titus declared out loud what Democrats fear most: that incumbents from President Barack Obama to Sen. Harry Reid to Titus herself are "f---ed" and risk losing re-election unless they learn from the GOP Senate upset in Massachusetts.
"To roll up our sleeves and focus on getting people back to work," Titus told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Wednesday after apologizing for using profanity in dropping the F-bomb but not for her negative assessment of the political landscape. "There's a lot of pent-up frustration out there."
Reid's office called Titus for an explanation after her raw remarks to fellow House freshmen went public with a leak Tuesday night on a political Web site. Reid accepted her denial that she had singled him out for possible defeat, which is what three anonymous people in the room told Politico.com.
"She told me she did not say that, and I just accepted it," Reid said, adding that he did not ask her to explain further. "There was nothing to apologize for."
Yet apologize she did, saying she didn't mean to do anything to hurt Reid or the party.
Still, the episode exposed cracks in the Nevada delegation and among Democrats nationwide who are struggling for political survival after Republican Scott Brown came out of nowhere last week to beat Democrat Martha Coakley and win the seat of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy in Massachusetts.
"I certainly apologized to him for any problems this has caused him," Titus said when asked about her five-minute conversation with Reid on Tuesday. "But I didn't say he was dead or he was going to lose.
"I said that from the president on down to myself -- if we don't get the message -- that we're all in trouble," Titus explained. "It certainly wasn't anything specific about Senator Reid or Senator Reid's race. ... I have every confidence in Senator Reid's ability to win this election."
Early polls show Reid, 70, in trouble, with three potential GOP opponents beating him by 5 to 10 points if the election were held today. Titus, too, is in a tough re-election race in a fairly new congressional district that was held by a Republican until she rode an Obama wave to victory in 2008.
The Democrats in the Nevada delegation, in damage-control mode, tried to smooth over any hint of a rift after the report on Politico.com that Titus, in a closed meeting with other freshmen and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, declared, "Reid is done; he's going to lose in November."
The meeting took place Jan. 20, the morning after Democrats suffered the big Massachusetts upset and members of Congress were struggling to see a path forward.
Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia, a Democratic freshman who was in the meeting, backed Titus' version of events.
"I was in the room when Ms. Titus made her remarks, and she did not single out Senator Reid. She said that all Democrats would be in trouble if we didn't learn from the Massachusetts election," he said in a statement released by Titus' office.
Reid, too, dismissed the anonymous comments. "And as you will note," he said in Washington, shaking his head, Titus' reported comments were based on "three unidentified sources."
Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, who wasn't in the meeting, jumped to Reid's defense.
"No one can match Senator Reid's record when it comes to delivering for the families in our state," Berkley said in a statement. "Or his efforts to create clean energy jobs and expand the green economy at home. That is why I know Nevadans will again choose Harry Reid to be their senator this November."
A Democratic aide in the Nevada delegation said Reid's staff called counterparts with Titus when they learned about the initial story to ask if it was true, setting up the call from Titus to Reid.
Reid and Titus have not always been natural allies. Some Titus friends believe Reid did not do enough for her in her failed 2006 campaign for governor. Reid got behind Titus in the 2008 race, but he also wanted GOP incumbent Jon Porter out of the picture to remove a potential 2010 challenger.
Titus, known for using salty language at times in private, said she cursed in this case to get Pelosi's attention and show how worried the freshman congressmen were about their futures.
"You can't pussyfoot around sometimes. Sometimes you have to be bold and direct to get leadership's attention," Titus said. "I think the room was kind of taken by surprise. There was a lot of laughter. ... If I had said Reid was dead in the room, there wouldn't be any laughter."
"I think we need to fight this together," Titus said of Democrats' efforts to reverse the GOP momentum a year after Obama took office. "You hang together or you hang separately."
Republicans were warming their hands as the Democrats tried to put out the fire.
Brian Walsh, the communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Titus and Reid were both "out of touch" with Nevadans, who are suffering more than residents of other states with record-high foreclosure and unemployment rates.
"If Dina Titus truly believes that Harry Reid is fighting every day to create jobs and stop home foreclosures, then he's clearly not very good at his job," Walsh said in a statement.
Mark Peplowski, a political science professor at the College of Southern Nevada, said the disclosure of Titus' comments made in private is another sign of the degradation of trust and confidence among Washington politicians, which has soured Americans on the process.
"Usually what's said in caucus stays in caucus," Peplowski said. "But nowadays, everyone has loose lips."
The fallout could be an every-man-for-himself situation.
"You'll have 435 little chickens going into their districts and doing whatever they can to get elected," Peplowski said, referring to the total number of House members.
Then he corrected himself, noting recent retirements by vulnerable lawmakers who would rather quit than fight.
Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault contributed to this report. Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.