Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: ‘I don’t work for Obama’
Democrats must be “very, very careful” to avoid overreaching and will not rubber-stamp President-elect Obama’s policies, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday.
In an interview with The Hill, Reid said it is essential for Obama and congressional Democrats to work closely with Republicans in the new Congress. He added that 2009 is very different from 1993, the last time Democrats controlled both Congress and the White House.
Back then, Reid said, Democrats had controlled the House for decades and behaved as though the opposition did not exist. This time around, their recent stint in the minority would give them a commitment to bipartisanship.
“Even though we’re one short of 60 [senators in the Democratic Conference], I don’t want to ever have to depend on cloture,” Reid said. “We may have to do that, but it will be with the support of a few Republicans.”
Reid, who lambasted the GOP-led Congress for being a rubber stamp for President Bush, indicated that he will not bow to the Obama administration.
Reid stated, “I don't believe in the executive power trumping everything... I believe in our Constitution, three separate but equal branches of government.”
“If Obama steps over the bounds, I will tell him. … I do not work for Barack Obama. I work with him,” he said.
In December, Vice President Dick Cheney said President-elect Obama will “appreciate” the expansion of the executive branch's power over the last eight years. During an interview on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, Cheney predicted that Obama will not cede that authority back to Congress.
While Cheney has been a regular at the Senate GOP policy lunches over the past eight years, Reid recently said Vice President-elect Biden will not be allowed to sit in while Democrats discuss legislative strategies over lunch. The move is part of Reid’s attempt to separate the executive and legislative branches, which moved in unison between 2001 and 2006.
The Democratic leader also defended Leon Panetta, Obama’s reported selection to head the CIA.
Reid said the Obama administration should have told lawmakers about the pick, saying incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel “would be the first to admit that he didn’t tell enough people on this. I talked to him [on Tuesday].”
Vice President-elect Joe Biden admitted Tuesday that the incoming administration made an error.
“I'm still a Senate man, I always think this way, and it’s always a good idea to talk to the requisite members of Congress,” Biden said. “It was just a mistake.”
Still, Reid believes Panetta, with whom he served in the House, should be embraced by senators: “There is nothing wrong with Leon Panetta.”
Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) have voiced concern that Panetta lacks sufficient experience to head the agency. Feinstein is the Intelligence Committee chairwoman; Rockefeller led the panel during the last Congress.
Reid noted that Panetta has extensive experience in government, pointing out that he served as head of the Office of Management and Budget and as President Clinton’s chief of staff.
“Has he been a CIA agent? The answer is no,” Reid said. “Has he been in [CIA] briefings at the White House? The answer is yes. He is a very smart, very honest intellectual person.”
The 69-year-old Democrat has made phone calls to his colleagues to rally support for Panetta’s nomination.
Reid, entering his second term as majority leader, is faced with high expectations over the next two years. And, as he is working to move a slew of bills to Obama’s desk, Reid will be raising millions of dollars for what he expects to be a challenging reelection race in 2010.
Republicans successfully targeted then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in 2004, and Democrats fell narrowly short last year in their bid to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). It is unclear which Republican will face Reid next year, but the Silver State legislator knows that the GOP is gunning for him.
Reid, a former boxer and U.S. Capitol Police officer who grew up in poverty in Searchlight, Nev., is comfortable in his own skin. He answers questions directly, though occasionally pausing to gather his thoughts before expressing them.
He has acknowledged that he can be impulsive. Reid has called President Bush a “loser” and a “liar” and labeled former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan “a political hack.” And Reid’s 2005 comment that the Iraq war “is lost” will undoubtedly surface in his reelection campaign.
In his book, The Good Fight, Reid wrote that his off-the-cuff remarks have “not always necessarily served me well, but it is who I am. I can be no one else.”
Known as a shrewd legislator, Reid single-handedly thwarted attempts to store the nation’s radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. More recently, his strategy to combine a popular Alternative Minimum Tax bill with the unpopular $700 billion bailout legislation helped save the financial rescue package after its stunning collapse in the House last fall.
Reid deftly dealt with two thorny predicaments following the 2008 elections. With help from Obama, he kept Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee while gently pushing out Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) as the head of the Appropriations Committee.
Reid can be combative. After the GOP-dominated election of 2004, he created a “war room” to respond to Republican salvos and, soon thereafter, helped kill the proposed “nuclear option” on judicial nominations. He told The Hill on Tuesday that while he has many friendships with Republican senators, “I hope they know I’m not a patsy.”
Reid is not a typical back-slapping politician and he is not a typical Democrat, opposing abortion rights and supporting gun rights. In fact, when he was elected to the House in 1982, Reid brought his gun to the nation’s capital.
The key to Reid’s success as leader has been his strong relationships with a diverse caucus, ranging from Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get complaints, however petty.
Reid said with a wink that his Democrats are whining about a lack of space on the Senate floor.
“Do you know the complaints I’ve gained from Democrats now? They’re all jammed in there. They don’t have any room — the seats are too close together,” Reid said. “We jammed in, over the last two years, 14 new desks on our side. They just don’t know what to do about being so close together.”
Reid declined to speculate as to when the controversial, union-backed “card-check” legislation will pass the upper chamber. Yet he said the bill is important to him and Obama.
“The union movement was hurt very, very badly in the Bush administration, and we are going to reverse that.”
Reid said he is interested in working with Republicans on card-check.
“But remember,” Reid said with a smile, “we think we only need two Republican votes.”