JIM LEHRER: Now, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader. He took over as the minority leader from Tom Daschle when he lost his bid for reelection to the Senate.
SEN. HARRY REID: My pleasure.
JIM LEHRER: First on some of the news of the day, what do you think of the Negroponte nomination? Is he the man for the job?
SEN. HARRY REID: Well, I have such great admiration for foreign service officers, and he, Negroponte, has been one of the top foreign service officers we've had in a long time.
He's been an ambassador to the Philippines, to Mexico, I think he was someplace in South Honduras, I believe.
JIM LEHRER: Honduras.
SEN. HARRY REID: And then of course Iraq. And he's worked as a deputy secretary, undersecretary of state. These career diplomats are good.
He's not a -- sometimes I have to say, you know, some of our diplomats are kind of political hacks, for lack of a better way to say it; he's not.
There will be hearings held with Biden and Lugar, Senators Biden and Lugar.
JIM LEHRER: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee?
SEN. HARRY REID: Yes, that's right. But I just think from everything I know about this man, I heard him yesterday.
We had a briefing in 407 in the Capitol, which is a room with classified information. And he did such a remarkable job of talking about what's going on in Iraq. I'm very, very impressed with him.
JIM LEHRER: And you think he'll win confirmation fairly easily?
SEN. HARRY REID: Unless there is something I don't see, I think he should get it pretty easy.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Another subject: How do you think the president is handling -- how well do you think the president is handling this Syria situation, particularly in light of the assassination in Lebanon?
SEN. HARRY REID: I think the president's handling it just right. I think we've put up with a lot of Syria that that we shouldn't put up with, and I think it's time to do what we've done.
I think it was right the call the ambassador home. I think it's right for there to be a full investigation, a real investigation to try to determine if Syria really did do it.
They're a mischievous lot, Syria. They've been in Lebanon far too long, and I support the president in what he's doing.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think of what the president said today that we just ran about Iran and the possibility that Israel may want to take out some nuclear facilities if, in fact, there is a weapons program in Iran?
SEN. HARRY REID: Well, I hope we don't get to that point. I would hope that we would be more involved than we have been. Most investigations in Iran have been taking place with the European community and Iran.
We should be more involved in that than we have been. It's a problem for us as much as it is for them. And so my personal feeling, and I have nothing to validate this with, but my personal feeling is that I believe they are developing nuclear weapons.
And I think we should be very vigilant because they are a country as we know, we've had a lot of difficulty with, and with the hope that we have the Palestinian and the Israeli question working out right now.
We're making a little progress. And if fate would allow us to work something out in Iraq, which doesn't appear it's around the corner, we don't need Iran stirring up trouble.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. But you think what the president is saying and doing is constructive toward dealing with the problem in Iran?
SEN. HARRY REID: Well, I'm very supportive of what he's doing in Syria. I think we need more involvement in the United States in Iran.
We haven't been involved enough. We can't leave that to other countries to do. We have vested interests there, and we should be involved ourselves.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Social Security: How does what Federal Reserve Chairman Greenspan said yesterday about personal savings accounts, how is that going to affect the debate in the Congress, particularly in the Senate?
SEN. HARRY REID: Well, I think it's going to help what we're saying. What we're saying is there is no crisis. This is a manufactured crisis.
Social Security, if we don't do anything, it's safe for approximately the next 50 years. When I mean safe, people will draw 100 percent of their benefits.
And if we still decide to do nothing after that, people will still draw 80 percent of the benefits. We have to do something to take care of the out years, but it's a manufactured crisis.
And the president, you know, all you have to do is see what some of the real right-wing groups have talked about over the years. They don't like Social Security. They want toe get rid of it.
This is an effort to get rid of Social Security. What the president is talking about these private accounts -- I was interested to see in his press conference, I read before I got here what he said in his press conference. He talks about $2 trillion.
Well, it's going to be money we'll save. The $2 trillion just makes Social Security worse. It doesn't help at all the solvency of Social Security. Privatization is a bad idea. It's been proven in Chile; it's been proven in Great Britain.
We also know that he's talking about benefit cuts -- benefit cuts, as much as 40 percent. That's very, very bad. Of course, we know that it would increase the debt significantly.
We need -- there are a lot of problems we have in America today with pensions. We have airlines that are in effect going broke unless we give them some relief with their pension programs, but that's separate and apart from what the president's talking about with Social Security.
I believe that not only is it a program that is designed to do away with the most successful social program in the history of the country, but it's also, I think, an effort to divert attention from issues that are important, from Iraq, from health care, from this huge deficit we have.
JIM LEHRER: So you think the president is really motivated by a desire to get rid of Social Security?
SEN. HARRY REID: Well, I'm a great fan of public broadcasting. I listen to public radio every morning and try to watch you as much as I can.
Last week on public radio, you had a couple of Republican operatives, one of which was Grover Norquist, talking about their effort to get rid of Social Security.
It's been a successful program for the Democratic Party, and they're committed to getting rid of it.
JIM LEHRER: So is there a Democratic position?
The Democratic position, at least your position, the position in the Senate is, among Democrats, is that there is no crisis and nothing needs to be done at all to the Social Security program right now?
SEN. HARRY REID: We Democrats believe, all of us, that there is no crisis. If the president wants to talk about doing something on the out year Social Security, we'll be happy to sit down and talk to him.
But the program he has given to the American people is one that is bad for the American people. You know, I come from the deserts of Nevada, a little rural community. People there depend on Social Security.
And he, any demographic group in America today, in fact, any one of your viewers can go to democratic.gov and they can pick up on our Web site a calculator. They can put in how much money they make this year and their age, and it will spit out the numbers.
And it will show every demographic group in America loses money, lots of money with the president's plan.
JIM LEHRER: So you're going to do everything you can to keep the president's plan from being enacted into law?
SEN. HARRY REID: Oh, we certainly will. And we're united in that. You know, there isn't a day that goes by that I don't see the wisdom of the founding fathers of our country.
Because they realized that they didn't want a parliament-type government as they have in Great Britain, as they have in other parts of the world.
The Senate is the difference between the president jamming this down the peoples' throats of this country, like they did in Great Britain, which again, on public radio this morning, had a piece that talked about how bad it was.
They couldn't find anybody in Great Britain -- Margaret Thatcher forced the program on them - that likes the program today. It's a bad program. And what the president is talking about is just like Great Britain, just like Chile, it's a bad program.
JIM LEHRER: Another subject. You have said that in the last several days that you're also going to do everything you can to block several of the president's choices for judgeships. Why?
SEN. HARRY REID: We talked about one manufactured crisis, Social Security. Let me give you another one, judges.
How many judges do you think that we approved during the first four years that President Bush was president? Do you know?
JIM LEHRER: Actually I do, 200 and some, right?
SEN. HARRY REID: Two hundred and four.
JIM LEHRER: Two hundred and four.
SEN. HARRY REID: We turned down ten. More than 98 percent of the judges that the president asked for he got: 204 to 10. That's a tremendously impressive number for the president to get.
We have one of the lowest judiciary vacancy rates in the history of this country. There is no crisis. We have a role as senators in the United States, again given to us by our founding fathers, to give advice and consent to the president.
That's all we've done. We have looked at the worst and we've turned them down. And this is another manufactured crisis. He can go around the country and say, "the Democrats are obstructionists." Obstructionists? Two hundred and four to ten?
Bill Clinton would have loved anything like that. They pocket vetoed, is what I called it -- they wouldn't even give hearings to about 70 of his nominations.
So they never came up to the Senate floor. There is no way to vote on those. So the president is crying wolf, and there is no reason to do so.
JIM LEHRER: If you feel these are so bad, why keep them from going to the floor of the Senate? These are about nine or ten of these, right? I'm talking about the ones that are pending now that you say you're going to block.
SEN. HARRY REID: Well, no Jim, we're -- I have only said we're going to block those we've already voted on.
JIM LEHRER: Those are the nine or ten, right, okay.
SEN. HARRY REID: There are people that -- we'll happily take a look at anybody he sends up, as we've done that, but the ones we've already voted on are going to be voted down again.
JIM LEHRER: They're going to be filibustered again, right? In other words, you're going to -- you're not going to allow it to come to a vote on the floor?
SEN. HARRY REID: Yeah, but Jim, this is something that's been done for centuries in America today. I read a speech the other day of Howard Baker. Howard Baker was one of the great Republican leaders -- my counterpart. He's a Republican.
JIM LEHRER: From Tennessee.
SEN. HARRY REID: Yeah. He's still around; gave one of the most wonderful speeches on the Senate floor defending filibuster.
And it was also interesting to note that Johnny Isakson, a new senator from Georgia, yesterday, he had made a trip to Iraq, and he said he knows Iraq's headed in the right direction because the minority parties have what is important to them, which has worked so well in America.
And what is that? Filibuster. So sure, we had votes on these judges. We just did it through the means allotted to us by Senate rules, filibuster.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of Iraq, do you believe Iraq is headed in the right direction now?
SEN. HARRY REID: I sure hope so. We have a supplemental appropriations bill coming up, and we're going to do everything we can to make sure that every one of those soldiers in Iraq get everything they need.
But I am concerned about Iraq. I'm very concerned. We lost 1,500 American soldiers approximately, a number of those in Nevada. Our guard reserve is stretched very thin in Nevada, as it is around the rest of the country.
We have about 12,000 who have been wounded, half of them very seriously. And I think that the costs are approaching $300 billion. That's a ton of dough.
And I think that we need the president to be more explicit in how we're going to get out of Iraq. He thinks things are going better. And I hope they are.
I was happy to see the elections. It was a proud bunch of Iraqis that took the chances they did to vote. And I hope we form a government. But the president needs to do better in telling us how we can get out of there.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the president, much has been said since the elections that he has a mandate for these next four years.
When you go back to your job every day as the leader of the Democrats in the United States Senate, do you feel you have a mandate to do something, and if, so what is it?
SEN. HARRY REID: Jim, I don't feel I have a mandate, but the president doesn't have a mandate either. If you look at what happened in the last elections, we lost three Senate seats and we lost the presidency by a very close vote.
And I give the reason for that is that we did so poorly in rural America. We did very poorly in rural America. That's too bad.
Nevada is an example. 91 percent of the registered voters are in Reno and Las Vegas. Kerry carried that list; two counties, add 'em together, he did well enough to win the state.
But 9 percent, rural Nevada, went heavily against John Kerry. And that's the way it was all over the country.
And if you look at what else happened in the country, out of the many, about 3,000 legislative races around the country, when we started the election cycle, we were 12 behind, 12 more Republicans than Democrats.
When it was over, there were 64 more Democrats than Republicans. We picked up 76 - pretty good. We now have 76 more Democrats - I'm sorry -- 64 more Democrats than Republicans.
We for the first time swept Colorado. We did great in Montana, North Carolina. We did fine around the country.
But I do feel that I have an obligation to the people of America to do, I repeat for the third time on this program, what the founding fathers expect us to do, and that is fight for the minority.
And the minority is right now we have fewer in the Senate than they have, but we are the difference between the president getting everything he wants and getting what we think is important to the American people.
JIM LEHRER: So you're going to define your job or define success in your job is in stopping the president from doing things rather than enacting things that you think should be enacted?
SEN. HARRY REID: Of course, that's one of the things that I think is successful, but I'm willing to work with Bill Frist, the Republican leader in the Senate.
We worked with him on class action, we're going to work on bankruptcy in the supplemental and the budget next time. But we're going to offer amendments.
We can't control what goes on to the floor, but once something gets to the floor, we can offer amendments to improve that legislation, to make sure that people in America are given the opportunity to see how this Congress stands on things like minimum wage and importation of drugs from Canada and other places.
We have an obligation not only to protect the people of America from bad things, but also to see if we can approve things that they put on the floor.
JIM LEHRER: And you're comfortable in your role?
SEN. HARRY REID: Yes, I'm comfortable in my role. I've been in the Senate now for a number of years now. I was the assistant leader for six years. I understand -- there may be one person Sen. Byrd, who understands floor procedures better than I do, but not many more know it as well as I do, so I'll do just fine.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Sen. Reid, thank you very much.