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Reid Discusses Lobbying, Spying and Iraq

January 18, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And now to the minority leader of the Senate, Sen. Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada. Senator welcome.

SEN. HARRY REID: My pleasure.

JIM LEHRER: First, why has it taken so long for everybody to move on lobbying reform?

SEN. HARRY REID: Jim, it’s taken a while for this culture of corruption the Republicans have developed to come into fore. The Republican leader in the House, four ethics convictions in one year, money laundering indictment, the Republican leader being investigated criminally and civilly, we have for the first time in 135 years, someone who works in the White House indicted. Safavian, who is in charge of government contracting, the president appointed him, hundreds of billions of dollars a year, led away in handcuffs because of sweetheart deals he had with Jack Abramoff and then you have, as has been talked about earlier in your program, the K Street Project.

Think about this, the “pay and play” program. You as a lobbyist, you pay, and we Republicans will take care of you legislatively. That’s why it hasn’t come to the forefront. The arrogance of power, the culture of corruption has not come to the attention of the American public as it has the past several months.

JIM LEHRER: But it’s been going on for years and years– the very things that you and the Republicans agree on to correct have been legal up till now. In other words, these are not the things that Abramoff is charged with or any of these people that you say are going off in handcuffs, right?

SEN. HARRY REID: Yes. But of course this culture of corruption, we need to change the rules and regulations that you talked about here on the program, but people are taking millions of dollars defense contractors, as one Republican was doing, and is now — pled guilty. The stuff that DeLay has done, you don’t need to change the rules.

JIM LEHRER: That’s my point exactly.

SEN. HARRY REID: The point is, he has already been in trouble. But I think it has shone a bright light on the abuses that have taken place that need to be corrected. And that’s what we want to do. We want to shine a bright light and make things better than what they were. We don’t think there should be a pay or play system. We don’t think this K Street Project, which they have worked on for a long time to get up to snuff — it was done with Abramoff; it was done with Norquist; and it was done with Ralph Reed. These are people who are in the political circles are famous for being infamous.

JIM LEHRER: But the specifics that are involved in the current situation aside, the practices of lobbyists taking people — financing trips abroad, taking people to meals — all of that — free airplane travel — all that sort of stuff has been common practice. Democrats and Republicans have been doing that for years, correct?

SEN. HARRY REID: Well, Jim, listen. The Jack Abramoff situation where he’s flying people around to golf tournaments in Scotland and other places, I don’t think that has been — if it has, I don’t know about it, but if it has been, it’s time to stop.

I just know that this is another one of the things that I didn’t take the time to mention that has been so abused, and the American people now see this.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. But members of Congress did not see it until the Jack Abramoff case came along?

SEN. HARRY REID: Of course, we as — friends have helped us; there have been criminal indictments. I’ve listed those.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

SEN. HARRY REID: We have had ethics committees who have met, and the Democratic — I’m sorry, pardon me. Strike that from the record, the Republican leader in the House four times convicted of ethics violations. I mean, we’ve had a little help bringing this to the attention of the American public.

JIM LEHRER: What I’m getting at, I think, Senator, is it’s a little bit of an “oh, I’m so shocked” element to this that a lot of people are having trouble understanding because this kind of practice of lobbyists trying to influence legislation is part and parcel of the system.

SEN. HARRY REID: Jim, your question is very valid, and I’m sorry I didn’t get to the answer sooner. Here’s the situation we have though. We are in the minority. There’s an arrogance of power here in Washington that is untoward. Republican White House, Republican House, Republican Senate. Seven of the nine members of the Supreme Court have been appointed by Republican presidents.

You know, you can’t get things done unless there’s a bipartisan movement, and I would hope that with this scandal, this Republican-driven scandal, we’ll get a few Republicans of goodwill to step forward and say we should have done this a long time ago, but we didn’t; let’s do it now. And that’s what I hope happens.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that is in the wind, based on what Speaker Hastert and other Republicans have said – Sen. McCain, Sen. Santorum and others?

SEN. HARRY REID: Having Sen. Santorum talk about reform is like having John Gotti talk about doing something about organized crime. He’s one of the problems. So –

JIM LEHRER: Why is he one of the problems?

SEN. HARRY REID: Because he was the liaison to K Street, he has gone down to the meetings, they meet every Wednesday in Grover Norquist’s office.

So I would hope that there are some people of whom you didn’t mention any at this stage that will move forward. John McCain, John McCain is a man of conscience, and I admire him. We came back to Washington together, and he’s talking about earmarks.

We have in our provision — I disagreed with some of the commentary. Ours is significantly different. We stopped the K Street Project and we also addressed the earmark problem that I think has created a problem.

I am a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, and what has happened in this Republican-dominated Congress is horrible.

JIM LEHRER: Do you do earmarks yourself?

SEN. HARRY REID: Yes, sure.

JIM LEHRER: Everybody does it, right?

SEN. HARRY REID: Well, no, not everybody.

JIM LEHRER: Fifteen thousand. Is Jeff Birnbaum right, 15,000?

SEN. HARRY REID: But Jim what I wanted to say is this.

JIM LEHRER: Excuse me.

SEN. HARRY REID: The problem doesn’t come with earmarks. You know, that’s what committees meet on and they deliberate, people make decisions, there’s a limited amount of money to go around.

And you, of course, have the three separate but equal branches of government, and the legislative earmarks are part of our responsibility. But the abuse that takes place, and I’m confident John McCain and others will work with us on this, we have a provision in ours called “the midnight provisions.”

We have a provision in our legislation which will be introduced on Friday that says you must have legislation that you can read 24 hours before you are required to vote on it. Why, Jim, as you know, right before Christmas, did we have this huge bill that they manipulated everything so there was ANWR in it and a lot of earmarks? Our provision would stop that, and that’s good.

JIM LEHRER: But it wouldn’t stop earmarks. You would just know about them 24 hours ahead of time.

SEN. HARRY REID: Well, so we could vote against them or for them. The way it is they’re just jammed in there and you have no opportunity.

There’s nothing basically wrong with earmarks. They’ve been going on since we were a country. The problem with earmarks, where they get their bad name is because they’re stuck in the last few minutes of a session, and the Republicans refuse to have public conferences.

Our legislation says that if you’re going to have a conference for it, the votes must take place publicly. We haven’t been invited for five years to conference committees. It’s been a one-sided deal and our legislation would stop that.

JIM LEHRER: What about the fundraising loophole that Jeff Birnbaum just talked to Margaret about? Are you going to do something about that?

SEN. HARRY REID: You know, Fritz Hollings, who is no longer in Congress –

JIM LEHRER: Senator from South Carolina for years.

SEN. HARRY REID: He was not only entertaining; he was very good. He has been proposing for years a constitutional amendment so that we can put a lot of strong restrictions on campaign financing, and we need to do that.

Again, we need to get Republicans to help us with that. But what I would say, Jim, McCain-Feingold, what a step forward in campaign finance. That was good work, and I think we should do more.

But the main obstacle at this time is that the courts have struck down a lot of things we have done, and we need to do it with a constitutional amendment.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Jeffrey Birnbaum, though, that this — whether they’re Republican proposals or Democratic proposals, there’s a huge hole that anybody can drive right through, just say, “well, I’m taking you to Nevada, or to wherever, for a fund-raiser, and I’ll take you to lunch because it’s a fund-raiser,” and so these things are meaningless?

SEN. HARRY REID: And our legislation addresses some of that with the lobbying — what our legislation does, I think is so good. It makes transparent what the lobbyists do, who they meet with, who they give money to. I think that’s important.

But what Jeff has talked about I think is another problem that we have to address. Right now, constitutionally, we can’t do it.

JIM LEHRER: Just for the record, Senator, you mentioned Sen. Santorum. You know, many Republicans say that you’re not one to go after this, too, because of $61,000 you accepted between 2002 and 2004 from Indian tribes that had affiliations with Jack Abramoff.

SEN. HARRY REID: Jim, the Republican spinmeisters in this town are really quite good. This is a Republican scandal. Jack Abramoff I’ve never met, I’ve never have seen him. As far as I know, I’ve never been in the same building that he has been in. He gave about a quarter of a million dollars to Republicans, not a single penny to Democrats.

We finished our little thing today that you had on television here, and as I was walking out, a woman came up to me — I had never met her before — and she said, “Senator, could I have a picture taken with you?” And I said sure, and she introduced herself. She the representative of tribal organizations from around the country, and she said, “Thank you for standing up for us.”

Jim, I have 22 tribal organizations in the state of Nevada. I have fought for Native Americans. If there is a group of people in America that needs help, they do. And I will continue to fight for Native Americans in Nevada and around the country.

And this woman said, “Thanks for standing up for us. We have a right to come to Washington. We have a right to contact our congressman, and we have a right to give them money.”

And they gave me that money, and I’m proud of it, and I’m going to continue to fight for Native Americans and the Republicans can spin this any way they want.

This is a Republican scandal. Jack Abramoff gave a quarter of a million dollars to Republicans and Republicans only.

JIM LEHRER: And you’re not going to give any of the $61,000 back or give it away as so many others have?

SEN. HARRY REID: No, I’m not.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

SEN. HARRY REID: Others can do what they want but -

JIM LEHRER: You’re not going to.

SEN. HARRY REID: No.

JIM LEHRER: Are you going to vote to confirm Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court?

SEN. HARRY REID: Jim, this appointment to the Supreme Court is so important. First of all, I agree with the president’s wife, Laura Bush. She said the president should have chosen a woman to replace this wonderful human being, this moderate woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, and I agree with her.

I haven’t been impressed with Samuel Alito. We’re going to continue this process. I think it would be a stretch to have me vote for him, but I’m willing to listen. There are still a couple of hundred questions that are outstanding that he hasn’t answered.

The Democrats are going to have a dignified process when this gets to the Senate floor, which will be a week from today. And we’ll see what happens. Democrats are very concerned about this. We feel that there should have been somebody like Sandra Day O’Connor replaced — the Judicial Committee established one thing: Samuel Alito is no Sandra Day O’Connor.

JIM LEHRER: Are the Democrats going to filibuster?

SEN. HARRY REID: That decision, of course, hasn’t been made.

JIM LEHRER: Is it pretty much off the table, Senator?

SEN. HARRY REID: Oh, I –

JIM LEHRER: Anybody pushing that?

SEN. HARRY REID: I don’t think anything — the answer is yes, sure, some people are pushing it, and there are a few who are not pushing it, but, sure, there are a few senators who would like to filibuster.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about it?

SEN. HARRY REID: Oh, I think it’s way too early. You know, one of my jobs, Jim, is to make sure I know where the votes are. I don’t know where they are yet.

JIM LEHRER: You know, speaking of the hearings, the senators themselves caught a lot of heat, many of them, for the suggestion was they talked a lot more than Samuel Alito did. What do you think about that? And the senators — well, what do you think about that? I’ll leave it at that.

SEN. HARRY REID: Well, those eight members of the Judiciary Committee that are Democrat — they know those issues so well. They talked about unitary government and all these things. I was a practicing attorney for many years, went to court a long time. I told all my Senate Democratic colleagues that are on the Judiciary Committee, I said, “I don’t know what the hell you were talking about.” So anyway, I think they did a good job.

JIM LEHRER: You think they did a good job? You don’t think they have anything to apologize for?

SEN. HARRY REID: No, we have an obligation, Jim, to ferret out this the best we can. And I hope during the next few days rather than talking about some of these legal principles, people understand how important Samuel Alito or anyone on that Supreme Court is to American people. The decisions that are made on that Supreme Court affect the price people pay for gasoline, the health care they can get, what retirement benefits they’re going to be able to receive. It’s pocket book issues are decided in the Supreme Court, and we want to do the right thing.

JIM LEHRER: The NSA surveillance story, do you agree with what Al Gore said yesterday, that the President of the United States violated the laws of the United States?

SEN. HARRY REID: I have the greatest respect for Al Gore, but I won’t direct my remarks about Al Gore, but I will to Bob Graham. Bob Graham is an expert on –

JIM LEHRER: Former senator from Florida.

SEN. HARRY REID: From Florida, and chairman of the Intelligence Committee, he’s written a book on intelligence. And he said when he was briefed on, this they didn’t tell him all that he should have been told, and as far as he’s concerned, they didn’t tell him everything, and he says what they’re doing is unconstitutional. What Bob Graham says is good enough for me.

JIM LEHRER: Some people are suggesting that President Bush — that impeachment proceedings should be considered. Do you think there should be?

SEN. HARRY REID: I think it’s way, way too early for that. One of the things we’re missing in this Republican-dominated Congress is oversight hearings, oversight of what goes on in government. Traditionally they’ve been held — not the last five years — so that the legislative branch of government does their job and looks into what the executive branch of government has done.

And I think if we ever needed detailed, in-depth hearings, it’s what the president’s tried to do about intercepting – you know, Jim, I’m in favor of getting rid of these bad people and making sure that we’re safe, but we want to do it keeping with this little Constitution that I carry around all the time. That’s the important thing.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Specter has called for hearings, and the attorney general has said he will participate. Is that going to get it?

SEN. HARRY REID: Jim, as we all know — you know — Arlen Specter is on a very short leash. When he got this job, he thought he was going to get it, they jerked him back real quick because he didn’t like what was being done regarding women’s reproductive rights.

He was reigned in very quickly. I’m not sure how much leeway he has, but I admire him for being a man who says he is willing to try something. That’s more than we’ve gotten from the Republican-dominated Congress for the past five years.

JIM LEHRER: Well, then if the hearings aren’t — are there any alternatives to that? I mean, what do you and the Democrats, or anybody else who is opposed to what the president is doing, what are you going to do about it?

SEN. HARRY REID: Well, I think you folks are doing a pretty good job. I mean, you folks in the press, you’ve rendered great service to the people of this country because you discovered it. It was broken in the New York Times, and others have picked it up since then, and we’ve learned a lot as a result of what you folks do and have done, and I think not only are we looking forward to what Arlen Specter has to say, but hopefully we can get something done with the Intelligence Committee without shutting down the Senate again.

I think this is something that we need to look into in great detail, and I would hope that those people who are Republicans, who have been on these short tethers seeing that our constitutional rights may be violated, should step forward and do something about it.

JIM LEHRER: “May be violated.” That’s where you are now. You’re not sure our constitutional rights–

SEN. HARRY REID: I accept what Bob Graham has said. He’s a fine lawyer, and a great member of Congress, a good governor of the state of Florida, and if he says it’s unconstitutional, that’s good enough for me.

JIM LEHRER: Finally on Iraq, Senator, I take it you still do not agree with Congressman Murtha’s call to withdraw troops from Iraq, U.S. troops?

SEN. HARRY REID: Jim, I served with Jack. He’s a wonderful man, and to think now they’re trying to denigrate this man for — he wasn’t hurt bad enough with his two Purple Hearts and maybe the people he watched die in battle, maybe that was someone else that was watching him. Maybe he doesn’t deserve that V for heroism that he has on his lapel –

JIM LEHRER: Bronze Star.

SEN. HARRY REID: I really support Jack very much. He’s a good man. And we do agree that we must change course in Iraq and that the year 2006, that’s where we are now, is a year of significant transition, and he was one of the primary factors that the course of the debate regarding Iraq has changed, and that will gone down in the history books.

JIM LEHRER: But should the average American now think that Jack Murtha or what you just said is the Democratic position — is there a Democratic position on Iraq?

SEN. HARRY REID: Jim, the Democratic position on Iraq is what passed the Senate by 79 votes, and that is the course of the war in Iraq must change, and this year, 2006, must be a year of significant transition. All Democrats agree on that. The president is the commander in chief.

We know that the evidence was — regarding intelligence was manipulated prior to going to war. He had a plan for winning the war, but what a faulty situation for winning the peace; he had no plan. As a result of that, we have nearly 2300 dead Americans, 18,000 wounded, a third of them severely, costing us $2 billion a week. It’s going on three years, and I think the president must do better than what he has done.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Reid, thank you very much.

JIM LEHRER: We extended an invitation for a similar interview to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and we hope to have that soon.