Monday, December 11, 2006

A Conversation With Senator Harry Reid

Entering the office of incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can be a bit of an intimidating experience. It has the austere look one would expect of such a room and it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the fact that the man who has just become the most powerful person in the United States Senate occupies that space.

That is, until you meet Harry Reid himself.

Senator Reid gave me 30 minutes of prime time on his last day as the Senate Minority Leader on Friday and, from the moment I was ushered into his office, Reid gave a welcome that quickly made me feel more like I was talking to an unassuming country lawyer than the man who will chart the Senate's legislative course for the next two years.

In addition to the warm welcome, I was struck over the course of our visit by something that I've learned to spot in life and that's readily apparent in Reid: He's a genuinely tough guy. Not in the loud, back-slapping, overt sense, but in the quiet, firm resolve with which he speaks and the conviction that he attaches to almost every word.

Reid is, after all, the former boxer who once beat a man senseless for trying to bribe him for political favors, a guy who knows what he's going to do in the next two years and who doesn’t believe that needless posturing will make it any more clear that fools will not be easily suffered on his watch.

Let's see how the former schoolyard bullies on the Republican side of the aisle deal with that until 2008.

The pride of tiny Searchlight, Nevada, who has been in the Senate for 20 years after two terms in the House of Representatives, talked with me about many things, including his legislative agenda, the Iraq Study Group, caring for Veterans, the minimum wage and investigations that he says will occur on the cooked intelligence used by George W. Bush to take us to war in Iraq.

Here is that interview:

Bob Geiger: Senator Reid, having read the Congressional Record every day for the last year, I've seen what you've struggled through as Minority Leader and I want to first congratulate you on a well-earned victory last month.

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV): Thank you very much. It's something that people didn’t think we could do. I always felt in my head… three or four months out from the election, my head kept telling me we might be able to do this. We can do this. But my heart kept overriding my head because I've been disappointed so many times, but my heart finally had to acknowledge on election night that we had won.

Geiger: I think even those of us who wanted this so badly and who wanted you to become Majority Leader felt deep down that this was just too many seats to make up…

Reid: Until election night I never even considered it. I was rationalizing that three seats would be 48 and that's certainly better than 45, but 49 would be wonderful -- change the committee structure, but here we are.

Geiger: Here we are. But having endured the antics of the Republican majority the last few years -- both from a procedural and policy point of view -- how do you balance now, as incoming Majority Leader, taking every advantage you possibly can, for the Democratic party and the Democratic party vision, but not doing a lot of what they did and, in the course of that, becoming like them?

Reid: I think first of all you have to apply a very simple principle: It's called the Golden Rule. I will not treat them like they treated me. We're going to have Congress the way it ran for more than 200 years. We're going to have committee hearings, we're going to look and see what the White House is doing. We have a Republican president, but it doesn't matter -- Republican or Democratic president, Congress has the ability and the obligation of Congressional oversight, which has not existed for six years and we have to do that. [Audio]

We're going to have real conference committees and I think if the Republicans proved anything, it's that a one-party town doesn’t work. We can't do it on our own. We have to reach out and get things done. What the Republicans failed to realize is that legislation is the art of compromise and consensus building and I'm going to compromise. And that is not a negative word because it comes from what I believe legislation is all about. I have done a lot of things legislatively in my quarter century here in Congress, but I've never ever gotten everything I wanted. I had to work with other people, build consensus and compromise and that's what I intend to do.

Geiger: There was a lot in the right-wing side of the political blog world, some carping about the Nuclear/Constitutional option, whatever you prefer to call it, and I heard one fairly well-known right-winger say that Harry Reid would do the same thing Bill Frist tried to do in a heartbeat. Would you?

Reid: No. And whoever said that is a fool and doesn't read the Congressional Record and doesn't watch what goes on in the Senate. I stated on the Senate floor that if I became Majority Leader and they passed that, I would rescind it. It is something that was negative to our country. I would never, ever do that because it was so anti-Senate and it was so anti-American.

Geiger: And what is the balance that Congressional Democrats are going to have to hit between a positive agenda for moving the country forward and not looking back but, at the same time, looking at and investigating some of the awful things that have happened over the last few years?

Reid: I closed the Senate -- closed it down, for the first time in a long, long, long time. I did it because Republicans were stonewalling us on investigating why we went to war. There were five issues that were to be looked at by that committee and since I closed the Senate, we've only gotten two of them. Now that we're in charge, with Senator Rockefeller, we'll get the other three.

We're going to find out how intelligence was manipulated, taking us to war. We have to look back to be able to look forward. We're going to do both. We're not going to limit ourselves to looking back but we have to look back in an effort to go forward. [Audio]

Geiger: Did you have any sense when you invoked Rule 21 to shut down the Senate last year how that would energize Progressives and the reaction and excitement that would cause?

Reid: I knew that it would energize me and I felt like it was the right thing to do and I'm very aware of how the country finally saw the fact that we weren't going to take it any more. And that's basically what it amounts to. We had been pushed around too much and, in my personal life, I don’t like people pushing me around and I don't like it in my public life.

Geiger: House Speaker-elect Pelosi took some heat when she made the statement that the subject of impeachment is "off the table." Now, those of us who understand that politics is probably 99 percent gray and very little black and white, looked at it and said that it's probably not something that an incoming Speaker should say or that an incoming Majority Leader should say -- that they're specifically going after the president.

But that said, isn’t there a big difference between that and any investigations that might happen and, without benefit of a crystal ball, acting on whatever results may come from those investigations?

Reid: I haven't been interested in impeachment for some time because of two words: Dick Cheney. I think that there's a significant difference between impeachment and investigations. We have to have investigations. We have to have our Intelligence Committee complete the work they started on investigating how we went to war. That's an investigation. We would be derelict in our duties by not doing that. [Audio]

Geiger: And speaking of that, some Democratic Senators, like Senators Salazar and Landrieu looked at the Iraq Study Group report and I think were pretty satisfied with what it said. Other Senators like Russ Feingold said that it missed the mark completely and that it didn’t really address getting out of Iraq. How will this be reconciled within the party over the next year or so?

Reid: The Iraq Study Group report is not scripture from on high. Ten people got together for nine months and did the best they could. I think they missed some points myself, but I think they did a pretty good job. And the one thing that they said publicly on the day they issued it is that the United States military should be out of Iraq by the first quarter of 2008. I mean, that's not as fast as some people want out but certainly it's a step forward and the president has ignored that finding and I think it's at his peril.

As we speak today, support for his policies in Iraq are 26 percent. Pretty bad.

Geiger: Senator Biden has announced that once he's chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, that six weeks of hearings are going to begin on the conduct of the Iraq war -- what kind of things would you expect to be focused on in the hearings Senator Biden wants to have?

Reid: We don’t know yet what he should focus on. The entire length of this war, there's not been any Congressional oversight hearings. They bring their stars in once in a while just to read from scripts that they've prepared for them, but we've had no real Congressional oversight. So where we start and where we go, that's why we do oversight hearings and I have the greatest confidence in Joe Biden. We have a very, very fine Foreign Relations Committee and the federal government will be better as a result of having had these hearings and the country will be better off after having had these hearings.

Geiger: One ongoing drama I've seen in watching the Senate every day is the battle that Senator Kennedy has had over the minimum wage -- and seeing how many times that's been shot down by the Republicans unless it happened to be attached to an Estate Tax cut. I think people are very encouraged with what they expect to happen with that in the coming months and what I'm wondering, sir, is that for low-income Americans who may be a little disillusioned with Washington and maybe not understand how it operates, what can you say to them about the minimum wage being raised with Democrats in charge of the Congress?

Reid: To show you how strongly we feel about this, we told the Republicans that there will be no Congressional pay raise unless you raise the minimum wage. There's no minimum wage increase, there's no Congressional pay raise for the first time in many years.

We're serious about this. We want the people in this country, the hardest working, to be able to work instead of going on welfare and make a living. Right now, you can't do that. You make a little over $10,000 a year working 40 hours a week -- try living on that. It's very hard to do. So I feel comfortable that we can pass a minimum wage increase. I guess I put it in this vernacular: I dare the Republicans to stop us from doing it. [Audio]

Geiger: Do you feel confident that it will happen in the first month or two of the new Congress?

Reid: It will happen in the first six weeks that we're back.

Geiger: You're saying it will happen in the first six weeks?

Reid: It will happen. Yes.

Geiger: I think part of the problem is that people who are more accustomed to urban areas look at the minimum wage in one way and people like you and I who are from small towns know people who don’t work in fast-food restaurants who make minimum wage and I think it's an entirely different way of…

Reid: Minimum wage isn’t for kids flipping hamburgers at McDonald's. About 15 percent of the people who draw minimum wage are teenagers. Sixty percent of people who draw minimum wage are women and the vast majority of those women, that's all the money they get to support their families. The minimum wage is important -- it keeps people off welfare.

Geiger: Along the same lines. I'm from a rural area and I'm the first person in my family to get a college degree and that happened because of the G.I. Bill. I went into the Navy a long time ago under the old G.I. Bill and it allowed me to move forward in life. I understand that Senator-elect Webb plans to bring something to the floor to restore an old-school type G.I. Bill for Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Where do you see that going?

Reid: I think Senator-elect Webb is the right person to do this. He's decorated for heroism in Vietnam. He's written books and plays and movies about war. He's an expert on war and he also thinks he knows a little bit about peace. He's got a son as we speak serving in Iraq and he believes that the G.I. Bill of Rights educated several generations and it's not doing that any more. We've got to change our tack and go back to some of the basics that we've lost.

Geiger: Do you see something like that as having a good chance of passing in the 110th Congress?

Reid: Oh, yeah. We'll pass it within the next Congress. I feel confident of that. It won’t be in the first niche of bills we do, but we'll do it during the Congress.

Geiger: I think that one thing a lot of Democrats have gotten so discouraged with -- and especially those of us who are Veterans -- is the treatment Democratic candidates, who are also Veterans, have gotten from the Republicans. What can Democrats do better to beat back those attacks and really put the Republicans in their place with the swift-boating kind of attacks against our candidates?

Reid: One of the things that I am dismayed about is why these Veterans groups even support Republicans. They under-fund their benefits, they have little concern for some of the new things -- agent orange, they fought that -- we now have the Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome which is running rampant among all these people and the Republicans won’t fund these programs. We do that.

The finest hospitals, I should say medical care, in the country today is the Veterans Administration. VA Hospitals. Now that's not a perfect health-care system but it's the best we have and the Republicans under-fund it every year. It's under-funded next year by this president by at least $30 billion -- billion not million.

And we have these men and women coming back from Iraq, this unusual war, with all kinds of problems. We have 23,000 who have been wounded, we have 2,000 of them with multiple amputations, we have a third of that 23,000 who have head injuries -- blind, missing limbs, paralysis. We fight for money for these programs and Republicans don’t, so I don’t understand why they would support Republicans.

Geiger: And along the lines of everything you just said, do you have a sense of what I think is going to be the hidden problem and that's Post-Traumatic Stress and not the people who have been wounded…

Reid: The problem is, it's not too hidden any more. There's been a number of reports in recent weeks talking about how they are just not being treated and they've taken case studies of different Veterans facilities. If somebody has an appointment with a psychiatrist, a social worker or psychologist to work on their emotional problems, if they're in training, they can't take time off from their training to go see their doctor.

The military's got to get modern. This is a modern war and we have modern diseases as a result of this war. Post-Traumatic Stress is a disease just like tuberculosis and it needs to be taken care of.

Geiger: With a Democratic House and Senate and the prospect of a Democratic president in 2008, what's your gut feeling on how long it will take to repair the Republican damage that's been done to our global reputation? Just how long do you think it will take to repair the damage that's been done to America's reputation in the last six years?

Reid: It's going to take generations. It's going to take generations. I talked to former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin in my office here just a day or two ago and he's traveled the world recently and he just shakes his head at the difference from when he was Secretary of Treasury and how we are now viewed in many parts of the world. It's a shame. And it's going to take generations to overcome that.

Geiger: A lot of good Democratic initiatives were shot down by the GOP majority in the 109th Congress -- and there were some good bills like Debbie Stabenow's work with first responder initiatives and Ted Kennedy with the minimum wage -- in addition to the minimum wage, what would be some things that you can see coming back rapidly to be reconsidered?

Reid: Well, we have to do something about energy independence. Our country is in big trouble -- we use 21 million barrels of oil every day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. We import more than 60 percent of that. We need energy independence and all this administration has done is throw big wet sops to the oil industry. This is the most oil-friendly administration in the history of our country.

We also have to recognize health care -- we've got to do something about health care. Two subsets of that, one is stem cell research, which is giving hope to millions. Second would be to recognize that we must do something to allow Medicare to negotiate for lower prices for drugs for senior citizens. The way it is now, it's not a fair playing field where the private sector has an advantage over Medicare and that's not the way it should be.

Geiger: How about the Real Security Act of 2006? Will that come back to the floor?

Reid: I think it's extremely important that progress is being made, but we need to change direction in Iraq -- that's something the American people spoke about on November 7. But also, we have to make sure that we're safe here at home. Port security, chemical plant security, nuclear power plants need to be secure, our water, our sewer systems, our airplanes. If someone is sitting next to me on an airplane and I'm flying to Las Vegas, I feel pretty comfortable about that person sitting next to me. But I don’t know what's in that cargo hold, so there's a lot more that needs to be done.

Geiger: I know that Senator Boxer has introduced legislation that would require blast-proof containers on commercial airliners…

Reid: Yes, she's done a number of things. She also wants to make sure that these airplanes have the ability to find out if someone is firing a missile at them, which is not farfetched any more.

Geiger: How frustrating was it for you when you continued to see the corporate media, the mainstream media, pay no attention to the Real Security Act to the extent that when I'm watching television, and I'm watching the pundits continuing to mimic Republican spin that the Democrats "have no plan" for security and there's 528 pages of legislation that was shot down by the Republicans.

Reid: We did have a plan and the press, a lot of it, ignored our plan. But, that's what's in the Iraq Study Group report. Our plan, which we offered as legislation on the floor, the Reid-Levin amendment is basically what the Iraq Study Group did. Our plans for energy independence, for helping kids get through school -- not because of how much money their parents have, but because they're smart enough to be educated -- that was part of what we wanted to do.

Retirement security, so that people have more security in their retirement than they do now because pensions are being obliterated, social security is being attacked… So it certainly is concerning that we weren't able to get our message out as much as people said we didn’t, but I think we did more than we were given credit for as indicated by elections on November 7.

Geiger: But how does the mainstream media miss 528 pages of legislation from the Democrats, saying this is our plan for national security?

Reid: Well, you're unique -- you've read it. Most of them just read other peoples' newspaper columns and let's just let it go at that.

Geiger: I'm from a very Republican area of Nebraska, a town even smaller than Searchlight, Nevada, and when I go home, I find that if I can get to people one-on-one and explain to them which party is really for their values and their interests -- not the religious version of values -- but taking care of folks, making sure people get a living wage, health care, I find that I can almost turn them into Democrats. How do we do that better on a national level?

Reid: Two years ago on election night when Kerry lost, I stood before the cameras and said this election was not lost because of abortion and Gay rights. It was lost because Democrats did not campaign in rural America. We support the issues of rural America. While the Republicans are taking care of the banks, we're taking care of the farmers, while the banks are foreclosing on them. We look at rural medical care -- who do you think saved rural hospitals with Medicare? We did.

All we have to do is recognize that campaigns must be conducted every place, in rural America. Nevada is an example: Seventeen counties. Reno and Las Vegas make up two of those counties, 90 percent of the population and Kerry won those counties. We think he should have won the election, but those 15 rural counties making up ten percent of the population, turned out in higher numbers -- the lowest turnout in any one of those counties was 84 percent, the highest was 96 percent and Kerry lost by two percent as a result of the heavy vote that came from rural America. That's the way it was all over our country. We have to do just what you say -- we have to go talk to the people in rural towns in Nebraska, in rural towns in Nevada and all over this country and let them know we care about them.

Geiger: In Senator Bill Frist's floor speech yesterday in which he was citing legislation that he was proud of that Republicans had accomplished in the 109th Congress, he mentioned things like allowing for prayer in military academies and saving the Mount Soledad Cross, things that frankly, I don’t believe most Americans really care a lot about. If you could look ahead to sitting here two years from now, what do you think you'll be most proud of with the 110th Congress?

Reid:I hope we do something with ethics and lobbying reform and I'm confident we will. I hope we pass the minimum wage, I hope we do stem cell research legislation, I hope we do something to implement the 9/11 Commission recommendations, I hope we do something dealing with energy independence… As I look back, if we're able to get all or part of that done, I'll feel pretty good about it.

Geiger: One of my colleagues in the Progressive blog world did a study on gas prices leading up to the elections on November 7 and found that they continued to fall right up until election day…

Reid: And now they're going up again…

Geiger: …and then they started going up immediately after the election, what…

Reid: What a surprise.

Geiger: What is your comment on that?

Reid: I believe that the oil companies have the ability to manipulate prices. I had a study done by the Federal Trade Commission to find out why the price in Nevada was so high and they said 'well they're high, but we don’t know why.' There was no reason for it. Well there's some reason for it… It seems to me that conveniently, they finally seem to go down at certain times and at times the gas prices are allowed to go up.

I'm not a big fan of the oil industry… I think they've ripped off the American people. [Audio]

Geiger: Do you feel there was a concerted effort to manipulate the election by lowering prices in September and October?

Reid: I don’t know… I can’t point to anyone that did this, but all I know is that prices kept going down, down, down and as soon as the election's over now they're going up again.

Geiger: You and Dick Durbin have always worked very closely together, since coming to the Senate together, I think, in 1982?

Reid: That's right.

Geiger: Other than his formal role, what role will he play in the 110th Congress with you?

Reid: Well, I think I have some pretty good partners in my leadership team. I've got Durbin as assistant leader, I've got Schumer, of course, as assistant chair, I have the tremendously competent Patty Murray and they're all going to be part. I'll hold weekly leadership meetings with them and try to include them in as much stuff as I can, so I have the benefit of their wisdom -- and it is wisdom that they give me on many, many occasions.

Geiger: So after you shut down the Senate a year ago and a lot of people were so energized when you did that, I heard some people start talking about a President Reid.

Reid: (Laughs) President of what?

Geiger: Is there any chance that you would decide to run for president in 2008?

Reid: No, I'm happy with my job. This is perfect for me.

Geiger: Senator, thank you so much for your time and good luck.

Reid: You're welcome.