JIM LEHRER: Now, our Newsmaker interview with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada. And to Ray Suarez.
RAY SUAREZ: Senator Reid, welcome to the program.
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: Thank you very much for allowing me to be on your show.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, at the beginning of this year, the Democrats returned to the majority after 12 years in the minority. You and Speaker Pelosi announced a very ambitious agenda. Now that one year has passed and you look back, how has it gone?
SEN. HARRY REID: Well, we’ve been able to accomplish quite a bit, but not very much, certainly not as much as I wanted to. I’m kind of frustrated, like the American people.
There are a lot of things that need to be done. We found a blockage on nearly everything we tried.
But in spite of that, in spite of the fact that in just a few short months, rather than two years, the Republicans blocked us 62 times. The record for two years was 61. So in just a few short months, they had more filibusters than in the history of the Congress before.
But in spite of that, we were able to get things done, with the most sweeping ethics and lobbying reform. We were able to get good things done as it relates to a balanced budget. We passed that.
We were able to get relief for 9/11. We got the commission recommendations there. We were able to just recently get some good energy legislation passed, but not enough. We still have so much more to do.
And what I’ve learned, I guess, during the past year is that we want to change and the Bush Republicans want to keep things the way they are. So we want to change things, and we’re going to work very hard next year to see if we can get the Republicans to join with us more often than last year, and not have as many things blocked, and try to do some more things.
Public angered at lack of progress
RAY SUAREZ: Well, earlier this week, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, was on the program. And he said, when asked the same question, "Regretfully, we've spent most of the year having repetitious Iraq votes and investigations of the administration. It seems like all that happened was the approval rating of Congress kept getting lower and lower."
SEN. HARRY REID: Well, Ray, if I were one of those people in one of those polls that said "What do you think of Congress?" I would vote with the people who said we're not doing very well.
I think we have so much more to do. And as far as Iraq, we had a responsibility. The people of this country recognize that the war in Iraq was the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country. And we've done everything we can to support the troops.
It was us, the Democrats, who realized that parents shouldn't be buying armor and sending it to Iraq for their sons and daughters, so we pushed, and we got body armor.
We're the ones that pushed for up-armoring the Humvees and other vehicles. We are the ones that put in the budget we just passed $3.7 billion more for veterans.
So the soldiers have done valiantly. But we recognize that spending $12 billion a week -- I'm sorry, a month, is what we are spending in Iraq, which is all borrowed money, is too much. And it's destabilized that whole part of the world, in addition to lessened our standing in the world community.
And we need to bring our troops home. I had a long planned trip to go to Walter Reed today. I didn't know I was going to be on this show. And I went there today for lunch and met with staff and some of the soldiers who are wounded and some who weren't wounded.
And without exception, when I said, "You know, we're doing everything we can to help you, appreciate your service, but I want to get the troops home." And without exception, they said, "Get them home as fast as you can."
Iraq war funding a "political game"
RAY SUAREZ: You and your colleagues have approved a partial allocation of what the president asked for continuing funding of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations. The president called it a down payment in his news conference.
But today, Secretary of Defense Gates said paying for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this way -- as he called it, "in fits and starts" -- undermines U.S. military planning and risks gains made by U.S. troops over the past year. How do you respond?
SEN. HARRY REID: Ray, it was just a few weeks ago that the secretary, when asked the question, if we give you no money for this supplemental, how long can the troops -- how long can you take care of things? And he said the Army is good until the 1st of March, the Marines are OK until the middle of March.
I confirmed this with him. The secretary and I had a conversation. He was in Afghanistan; I was here. And he confirmed that.
Just a few days after having said this, the spin starts. "You've got to give us money or we're going to have to start laying people off." That's not valid. And I think it speaks volumes.
The Republicans don't even accept that. We just had a vote in the Senate of the United States -- the House confirmed this -- where the president asked for $196 billion, even the Republicans in the Senate didn't have the nerve and the audacity to ask for it all. They asked for about a third of it. And so $70 billion had been just approved.
Could they wait just a little while before they start the political drum roll? We have done everything we've been called upon -- and more -- for the troops. We have been there. We support the troops.
But this war is costing us $12 billion a month in borrowed money. There are some who say it's already cost us about $800 billion. And that's direct cost for the war.
So I think what we need to do is recognize that the political situation in Iraq is no better than it was two years ago, three years ago, a year ago. They've got to take care of their own situation.
We have done a lot. We have done, some say, far too much. We've got to start bringing our troops home. We have taken our eye off the prize in Afghanistan. The Taliban is resurgent.
We have Osama bin Laden, who is still taunting us. He is still free and loose.
So I think that we have to recognize that we don't have unlimited resources, an unlimited time to spend in Iraq. And now they must take over their own government and their own country.
RAY SUAREZ: But if the president asks for $196 billion, and he's appropriated $70 billion, he's going to have to come back to you anyway, isn't he? What's the idea behind giving him just part of that if, in four months or five months, he has to come and ask for more?
SEN. HARRY REID: Ray, the Republicans offered the amendment for $70 billion. We didn't. The reason is the money is not necessary now.
Secretary Gates said, if we gave them no more money, they're OK until the 1st of March, the middle of March for the Marines. This is all a political game that the president is using.
He should just focus and work with us. You know, the president needs to work with us. If there's a problem with the money, send the secretary down and tell us.
But the secretary told us there's not a problem. And I don't know who he's talked to in the White House that he suddenly goes "well, there's a problem" -- the American people just have been asked to spend $70 billion more in borrowed money. I think that's OK. Let's see how things go. Let's see if we can bring some of the troops home and not have to spend all that money.
When is enough enough?
RAY SUAREZ: One thing that's changed a great deal since the beginning of the year is the number of American troops that are dying in Iraq and the rate at which they're dying and being wounded.
The increase in the number of American troops in the theater, by many accounts, is having its desired effect, and the day-to-day violence in Iraq is in decline. Does that change your approach to Iraq? Does it force a change on your body, the Senate, in how you respond to calls to change direction now?
SEN. HARRY REID: Ray, you can't have it both ways. The president said, "Let's send some more troops over there, and that will give the Iraqis the time to take care of themselves." We sent other troops over there, and there are a lot of reasons the surge certainly hasn't hurt. It's helped. I recognize that.
But also, on your radio program, public radio today, there was a story about the fact that one of the academics said -- it was a long interview -- that said, you know, the ethnic cleansing has taken place all over Iraq. There is not the conflict because there is separation. There's segregation in effect.
So it's time that the American people were given the benefit of the doubt and not have to spend all this borrowed money, start bringing our people home. When is enough enough?
How much longer are we going to be asked to spend $12 billion a month on this war, when we don't have money for health care? We tried to get 10,000 poor children health insurance. The president said there's not enough money to do that.
We've tried to do some good things with having alternative energy, that is, have energy that's developed by sun and wind and geothermal. The president said there's not enough money for that. There's money needed for education. The Leave No Child Behind Act is leaving children behind. We need money to take care of that; there isn't enough money because of the war in Iraq.
Progress slow in a divided Congress
RAY SUAREZ: When he was on the program earlier this week, Senator McConnell said that he gets the feeling that your side of the aisle is coming to the understanding that you all are going to have to meet in the middle to get anything done in the Senate, because of the closely divided nature of the chamber, a 51-49 split.
He said, "Approval rating of Congress will begin to inch up a little bit now that our friends in the majority understand you really have to meet in the middle to accomplish things for the American people." Are you getting along better now in the last couple of weeks, where you passed some legislation under the gun, with deadlines looming?
SEN. HARRY REID: Ray, the majority that we've had in the Senate has been very narrow. Tim Johnson a year ago got deathly ill. He lived. He was out of the Senate for almost 10 months. He's made a remarkable recovery, so now we're back. We're in the majority, 51-49.
I've always recognized -- I understand the Congress. I've been in Congress for quite a few years. I understand the only way you can get things done is working together. I've always felt that. It hasn't been the last couple of weeks; it's been always.
The only way we can get things done is working together. When we get things done, there's credit for everybody. But I repeat what I said earlier in the show: Everything we've tried has been blocked.
We've had 62 filibusters that have stopped us from moving forward. We've had to work around all that. It's very difficult to do.
And I'm glad to have Mitch saying that he thinks things are better. I appreciate that very much. I want to work together. I want to work with the White House; I want to work with the Republicans in the Senate.
And I hope that the things work out better next year. If it doesn't, it certainly won't be because I haven't tried.
RAY SUAREZ: How is your relationship with President Bush? There have been some pretty rough exchanges in the past year.
SEN. HARRY REID: Well, you know, I would love to go to a baseball game with President Bush, have dinner with him, but that is not the important thing. The important thing is that we have to get results for the American people. And I disagree with President Bush's policies much of the time.
We have to do a better job with health insurance. We have 50 million people with no health insurance. We have global warming that is here, and the president doesn't recognize there's a thing called global warming.
We've got education. A child's ability to be educated shouldn't be dependent on how much money their parents have.
The COPS program to bring down crime, the president doesn't believe in that program. So the president, as a person, he and I are just fine. But his policies I don't agree with, and the majority of the American people don't agree with him, and any poll you see recognizes that.
RAY SUAREZ: When you and the other 99 members come back to work in the third week in January, it will still be 51-49. But Joe Lieberman, who caucuses with you, routinely votes against the Democrats on questions involving the war, and four other members are out running for president.
Can you muster your troops when need them? Has that been a challenge, having four Democratic members of the Senate out there on a campaign trail?
SEN. HARRY REID: First of all, Joe Lieberman, Joe Lieberman is my friend, and he is a good Democrat, votes with us on everything, except the war. So Joe Lieberman is easy to work with.
And it'll be good to get three of my senators back. It appears that the nominee will be chosen very soon. And I have to be very candid: It will be good to have at least three of them back.
RAY SUAREZ: So do you think the coming year is going to be much different from the year that's just transpired?
SEN. HARRY REID: I hope so. I hope so for a number of reasons. One is that I think the Republicans are going to see that marching in tune with the president has not been helpful to them.
It's not Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, talking now. It's any pundit that you talk to. We're going to pick up Senate seats. If the election were held today, we would pick up four seats. That would bring us up to 55.
And there are some who say, for example, Greenberg, the famous pollster, said we'll pick up nine seats. I think that's far too many, but we're going to pick up seats. I think as a result of all these forecasters, I think we're going to see the Republicans wanting to work with us more, not blocking things 62 times during one year.
RAY SUAREZ: Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, thanks for coming by.
SEN. HARRY REID: Thank you very much.