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Senate Minority Leader Discusses Iraq, 9/11 and 2006 Races

September 13, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: But first, our newsmaker interview with the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada.

We will talk to his Republican counterpart, Majority Leader Bill Frist, tomorrow night.

Senator Reid, welcome.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: Very happy to be here.

JIM LEHRER: First, on the politics, the primary results, how do you see the victory by Senator Chafee in Rhode Island as good news or bad news for Democrats?

SEN. HARRY REID: Well, of course, if he had lost, it was all over with.

But Rhode Island is our best state, 80 percent Democratic. It’s a state that we should win. They have only elected two Republicans in the history of the state, and both of them named Chafee. I think we’re…

JIM LEHRER: Senator Chafee and his father, John Chafee, correct?

SEN. HARRY REID: Yes. I think we’re in real good shape there.

JIM LEHRER: But do you agree with what Mercurio just said, that you Democrats have to win Rhode Island if you’re going to regain control of the Senate?

SEN. HARRY REID: We have eight seats that are in play.

The American people want a change of direction. What’s been going on these past six years is not good for the American people. We have eight seats. We never expected we would have eight seats where we’re within five of those states, we’re ahead in the polls. And three of them, we’re within four or five points.

This is an election that we have a lot of options. So, we think we are going to win Rhode Island, but we have other opportunities.

Elections and Iraq

Senator Harry Reid
D - Nev.
We need to change the direction in Iraq. We need to make sure that people understand that we can't be there forever. We're not for moving out right away, but we believe there should be a redeployment that would start by the end of this year.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of options, Senator, in a general way, what are the options for the voters in 2006? When it comes now to the Senate, what is going to change? What are they choosing between when they vote for a Democrat vs. a Republican?

SEN. HARRY REID: Jim, this is such an easy question to answer.

What have we seen in six years? An intractable war in Iraq, costing the American people 2,600 of their finest brave men and women, over 20,000 wounded, a third of them grievously, losing eyes, limbs, paralysis, head injuries, costing the American people $3 billion a week.

We have a president who has tried to force privatization of Social Security down our throats. We were able to stop that. There's 47 million people with no health insurance, millions of others who have no health insurance. We have had programs to help education that this president has eliminated, like tuition tax deductibility, so kids can go to college.

We have done nothing with the energy crisis that faces this country. We have a staggering debt that is red as far as you can see. A change of direction is what we need. And this is what we're going to get. The American people deserve that, and they need that. And we're going to help them with that.

JIM LEHRER: On Iraq specifically, what does a vote for a Democrat mean, in terms of changing direction on Iraq?

SEN. HARRY REID: Well, first of all, we think it's time the training wheels came off of Iraq.

We have spent billions of dollars getting them ready to take care of themselves. The Democrats voted today, and they voted last month, to say that, by the end of this year, we should start redeploying troops, not taking them out.

We also believe, as the amendment that we offered today -- it was defeated on a straight party-line vote -- that there should be a calling of a conference in the area to bring in other...

JIM LEHRER: In that area of the...

SEN. HARRY REID: Yes, that's right.

JIM LEHRER: ... of the world, in the Middle East?

SEN. HARRY REID: Yes.

We need to change the direction in Iraq. We need to make sure that people understand that we can't be there forever. We're not for moving out right away, but we believe there should be a redeployment that would start by the end of this year.

Changing the policy on Iraq

Sen. Harry Reid
D - Nev.
[The president] hasn't had to veto anything, because he -- they have given him everything he wanted. We basically haven't had a third branch of government.

JIM LEHRER: But George W. Bush is still going to be president of the United States. What is a Democratic Senate going to do about all of that?

SEN. HARRY REID: Well, of course, Jim, if we had the majority, we have control of the pocketbook, the purse. That's what our Constitution set up, is that the legislative branch of government controls the money.

And this president, during the last six years, has had a carte blanche with this Republican-dominated Congress. He's gotten everything that he's wanted, except stem cell research, the only thing he's vetoed. He hasn't had to veto anything, because he -- they have given him everything he wanted. We basically haven't had a third branch of government.

JIM LEHRER: So -- but to put it directly, if your party, if you take control of the Senate, you will take control also of Iraq policy?

SEN. HARRY REID: He is the commander in chief. But there will be more numbers to help redirect what is going on in Iraq.

The president said the people he -- the people -- that there is going to be troops there until he leaves office. We hope that's not true. We agree that not only has -- need there be a change of direction in Iraq, but other parts of the country.

JIM LEHRER: Can the Democratic-controlled Senate stop the killing like happened today in Baghdad?

SEN. HARRY REID: It's interesting. We have had, this week, the colonel in charge of Anbar Province say that it's a civil war; it's been lost.

JIM LEHRER: Well, he's actually -- it was an intelligence -- a colonel who is a Marine intelligence officer.

SEN. HARRY REID: And, today, it was backed up by General Shide (ph), who said that he agrees with him. We have heard testimony today...

JIM LEHRER: Who is -- excuse me. Who is General Shide (ph)?

SEN. HARRY REID: He is one of the generals in Iraq who has...

JIM LEHRER: OK.

SEN. HARRY REID: He has three days, and he's getting out of the military. But he was responsible for...

JIM LEHRER: For Anbar?

SEN. HARRY REID: For -- yes.

And we also know that, in the House today, there were testimony given by somebody that worked with the ambassador to Iraq, who said that basically we're in a civil war there. So, yes, we believe that we can stop the killing of American soldiers and slow down the civil war.

You know, it's not just Democrats that are saying this. We have Senator Hagel. We have a number of other Republican elected officials who are saying, we need to change direction. Hagel agrees with us. We should start redeploying troops by the end of year.

A missed opportunity to unite

Sen. Harry Reid
D - Nev.
The domestic spying, that's something that is important, so that we can make sure we know what the terrorists are doing, and have wire intercepts, but in compliance with our Constitution.

JIM LEHRER: You were severely critical of the president's speech the other night on 9/11 about what he said about Iraq. What was wrong with what he said?

SEN. HARRY REID: Jim, if you look at his speech, all he did was take words that he had given all the previous month in his political speeches -- campaign speeches in Georgia, and other places in the country, exact same words.

He had an opportunity, on that night, that solemn occasion, to bring America together, not point fingers -- and that's what he did -- not give a campaign speech. And I thought that it was untoward for him to do that.

JIM LEHRER: How did he point fingers? What specifically are you talking about?

SEN. HARRY REID: We, of course, were there. I went on the east front of the Capitol, and where we sang "God Bless America" again. I went to the Pentagon for that commemoration, as I was happy to do.

It was a time to bring the country together. The president, as they have done, this administration has done, they try to conflate Iraq, al-Qaida, all the things that have no relationship to -- you know, they have admitted that there is no relationship between 9/11 and Iraq, but, yet, they keep talking about it, and as he did in the speech.

He mentioned Iraq 17 different times, pointing fingers at those who disagreed with him, are, in effect, hurting this country. He should have talked about 9/11 and how it brought us together. 9/11 brought us together. His speech did not.

JIM LEHRER: John Boehner, the House majority leader, Republican leader of the House, in responding to what you and other Democrats said in criticism of the president said, "I wonder if they're" -- meaning Democrats -- "more interested in protecting the terrorists than the American people."

What's your response to that?

SEN. HARRY REID: You know, Jim, I'm not sure that is -- could be dignified with an answer.

We have a situation in Iraq that is very, very damaging. We have problems all over the world. And terrorists are bad, evil people. We're working to do something, as Boehner was speaking, with the Hamdan decision, to come into compliance with what the Supreme Court says we need to do. We're working on a bipartisan..

JIM LEHRER: That's on military tribunals.

SEN. HARRY REID: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: Is that going to go through?

SEN. HARRY REID: Well, we're going to do everything we can. We have a bipartisan procedure...

JIM LEHRER: A legitimate, a real bipartisan...

SEN. HARRY REID: Oh, yes, by Senator Warner, Senator Levin, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, bipartisan.

The domestic spying, that's something that is important, so that we can make sure we know what the terrorists are doing, and have wire intercepts, but in compliance with our Constitution.

And, then, we have a bipartisan matter that was reported out of the Judiciary Committee today. Senator Feinstein, Senator Specter -- Senator Lindsey Graham voted for that. That's very important. That's good.

Playing the game of politics

Sen. Harry Reid
D - Nev.
We had the opportunity today to make America safer. And we have been trying for five years, offering these amendments. They're defeated on a straight party-line vote, as they were today. And that's unfortunate.

JIM LEHRER: You were accused today of playing politics, specifically because you tried to attach some issues, some additional items to a port security bill. And Republicans said you were playing politics with terrorism by getting them to vote against amendments that would have expanded the bill.

SEN. HARRY REID: Jim, we had a port security bill, certainly much better than nothing. It's something we should have been -- we should have done years ago.

We have been asking it to come forward for years. But what our amendment did is some interesting things. For the first time in 27 years, the Republican Congress last year did not reauthorize the intelligence bill. We do that every year to give our intelligence operations in this country and around the world the tools with which to work. They didn't do that, the first time in 27 years.

This is the 28th year. That was part of our amendment. We also thought that the 9/11 Commission recommendations, which this administration has gotten F's and D's on, should be implemented. We recommended and put in our legislation that all 41 suggestions of the 9/11 Commission be passed.

We also believe that not only should there be port security, but there should be transportation security. Our amendment called for having rail security. We have been asking for that for a long, long time. We know what happened in Spain, what happened in Great Britain.

Excuse me. We also believed... and do believe....

JIM LEHRER: There's some water there, if you need it.

SEN. HARRY REID: We also believe that there should be -- our chemical plants should be secure and safe. Our amendment covered that -- our nuclear power facilities.

We had the opportunity today to make America safer. And we have been trying for five years, offering these amendments. They're defeated on a straight party-line vote, as they were today. And that's unfortunate.

JIM LEHRER: Was this a serious effort by you?

SEN. HARRY REID: Jim, I have gone over what is in it. It's very serious.

That's why every Democrat voted for it, including Senator Lieberman. Well, there were two senators who did not. But Senator Lieberman, for example, voted for it.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

SEN. HARRY REID: It wasn't any wild-eyed thing. Virtually every Democrat voted for this.

JIM LEHRER: We're going to talk to Senator Frist tomorrow night. What's your relationship with him?

SEN. HARRY REID: Senator Frist and I are friends.

I think it's very commendable that someone like him, a renowned transplant surgeon, would devote himself to public service. I have a great personal relationship with him. I like him a lot.

We have disagreed politically. I think that his following the Bush administration, as he has, and taking away the third branch of government working with the administration, not do that, has not been good for our country.

But him personally, I think he's a wonderful man. I care a great deal about him and his lovely wife.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Senator Reid, thank you very much.