Sen. Harry Reid introduced a surprise guest as he took the oath of office for a fifth term this afternoon in the U.S. Senate chamber.
Former Nevada governor and senator Paul Laxalt took part in Reid’s induction ceremony, accompanying him down the Senate aisle and standing behind him in the well as Reid raised his right hand and swore once again to "support and defend the Constitution."
Laxalt, now 88, was an influential Republican who enjoyed a close friendship with Ronald Reagan when Reagan was governor of neighboring California and later president. He retired from the Senate in 1987 and became a GOP party elder and business consultant in Washington.
Vice President Joe Biden, who was presiding from the dais over the swearing-in of new and returning senators, came down to the well and gave Laxalt a hug.
"How are you, big guy?" Laxalt was heard to say. The Nevadan also was greeted by Senate old-timers like Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, younger members and several retired senators who returned for the opening day ceremonies, including Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Paul Sarbanes, D-Maryland. Laxalt left a few minutes later with Reid’s chief of staff.
Reid said it was a nice touch to invite Laxalt, a longtime friend despite party differences.
"He had such a good time," Reid said. "Never in the history of the country has the vice president ever come down and hugged the man who traditionally was there, either for me or anyone else. He loved it, he was so happy. It was perfect."
At the same time, though, the episode seems likely to fuel more speculation about the relationship these days between Reid and fellow Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who ruffled feathers in the Reid camp by helping GOP challenger Sharron Angle during the fall campaign.
Reid aide Zac Petkanas said the incumbent asked Laxalt "months ago" to stand with him. Meanwhile, Ensign decided to remain in Nevada this week rather than attend the opening of the 112th Congress.
In most instances, a returning senator is walked down the aisle by his state counterpart. Under Senate rules, it would have been possible for both Laxalt and Ensign to accompany Reid.
Petkanas denied Reid’s invite to Laxalt was a signal to Ensign or a sign of a strain in their relationship.
"Senator Laxalt has long been a good friend to Senator Reid," Petkanas said.