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Newsmaker Interview: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sat down for a newsmaker interview with Judy Woodruff. You can watch a version of this interview on the PBS NewsHour Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Judy Woodruff Wednesday that the Senate had “a breakthrough” last week when they were able to cut a bipartisan agreement to allow votes on stalled executive nominees without resorting to the so-called “nuclear option.”

Reid expressed optimism that Republicans would be willing to work with Democrats moving forward: “There are still 60 percent of Republicans who want to do good things. And I am confident that some of the people who have tea party affiliation, even they’re tired of the gridlock.”

Wednesday on the PBS NewsHour, the senator joins Woodruff to talk about the economy, partisan conflict, President Barack Obama’s relationship with Congress and the 2014 presidential contest.

Read a transcript of their full interview below.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, thank you very much for talking to us.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: It’s really my pleasure. I try to watch almost every night when I’m home in time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s great to hear.

President Obama is out on the road today trying to refocus Americans’ attention on the economy, talking about job creation. Do you think he’s going to be able to do that? And second of all, do you think that Congress is going to be able to do what it should do this year to improve the economy?

SEN. REID: First of all, the president’s speech is not a photo op. This is something he’s been planning for a long time. I was at the White House recently and I– just the two of us, and I was stunned about his optimism for doing good things. He’s never backed off of– what he wants to do is create jobs. He knows that’s where the issue is.

So this isn’t one speech. He’s going to give a series of them and, in effect, keep his eye on the prize. And the prize is to do something to help the middle class. So I support what he’s doing.

And the second question you asked me is what can we do about it here in Congress? I hope that what’s taken place in the last week or so has set a better tone here in Washington. The American people are upset with Congress. If one of those pollsters had called me, I would agree with the 83 percent that thinks we can do a better job. They don’t call me, but if they would I would tell them how I feel about Congress myself. But what we were able to do to defuse some of this, we were able to get some Republicans to break away from the pack and start working as we used to do, to compromise to get things done.

So I hope that with the financial crisis that’s facing us because of what’s happened with the tea party-driven Republican leadership in Congress, that reasonable Republicans will break away from this, because we can’t– they’re threatening to not pay the debts the country has already incurred.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Senator, are you saying — first of all, are you saying you think Congress can do something about the economy to help the economy?

SEN. REID: Well, sure. All we have to do is to work together. That’s why, as we speak, Patty Murray is working with Susan Collins on an important transportation appropriations bill. We haven’t done appropriations bills here for a long time. That’s a job-creating measure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s talk about–

SEN. REID: And I would say this: 19 Republicans joined with us to make sure we have a good debate on this bill. That’s something that hasn’t happened in a long time around here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But let’s talk about that poll. You just cited 83 percent of Americans disapprove of the job that Congress is doing — the lowest rate it’s ever had. Are Americans right in their perception?

SEN. REID: Yes, of course they’re right. Gridlock. We have gridlock. We have a House of Representatives — they’re doing nothing. My friend the speaker was on television on one of the Sunday shows and he said, my job isn’t to pass laws; it’s to repeal them. Well, by that metric he’s failed every place because he hasn’t passed any laws and he damn sure hasn’t repealed any. We have to start talking about things we work on together, and that is what’s missing here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You said most of the blame lies with the Republicans, but don’t, in fairness, the Democrats bear some of the responsibility?

SEN. REID: Judy, you should tell me — I’ll take whatever blame is there, but we have people who work all the time trying to come up with issues. I talked about Patty Murray. She has really worked hard. We got a budget passed over here. The Republicans won’t let us even go to conference on that. We have Barbara Mikulski who is so energetic on starting the appropriations process again. She has a wonderful relationship with Dick Shelby, who is a ranking member. And I could go through all my Democratic senators who are trying to work.

But we have a situation here. Let’s acknowledge it. The vast majority of the Republicans in the House are tea party members. Forty percent of the Republicans here in the Senate, tea party. They represent about 5 percent of the American people but they veto everything we do here. And that’s why the last week there was a breakthrough. John McCain and others– I called John and I said, John, we need to try to work something out on this, and he stepped forward with others and did that. When it came time to go to floor, I talked about John McCain more than I talk about Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So that did happen just last week, but today there is talk about potentially another filibuster on funding the president’s health care reform, on “Obamacare.” Could the fix that happened last week turn out to be just temporary?

SEN. REID: Judy, if you look at what Mike Lee, the young man from Utah, is talking about — read what he says. What he wants to do is shut down the government to get rid of “Obamacare,” but in the process he wants to keep all the good things we have in “Obamacare” — no pre-existing disability problems, no limits on how much insurance companies have to pay. They want to make sure that all the wellness for millions of seniors still exists. You can stay on your parents’ insurance policy until you’re age 26.

He’s living in a dreamland. So Republicans — even Republicans won’t agree with what he’s trying to do. And he is representative of the tea party, and that shows how senseless and illogical it is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But do you think it’s possible that what happened last week could turn out just to be temporary, that you could just end up right back at war with the —

SEN. REID: I think it’s possible, but I don’t believe it’s going to happen. I believe that Democrats and Republicans will recognize that we have to work together.

Take, for example, student loans, student loans. We have– student loans went from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent at the beginning of July, for students and their parents trying to get a college education. We can’t let that happen, even though that’s– we don’t have 3.4 percent; Democrats said, then we’re not going to do anything, so we’ve worked together. Dick Durbin led the charge and we’re working together with Lamar Alexander, a Democrat and a Republican, a liberal and a conservative, and now, we have written up– approved this legislation, because it’s a compromise. What it does is says the next five years, parents and children — students, I should say — are going to pay far less than 6.8 percent; that’s pretty good.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But so you’re saying you believe Republicans are ready to work now with Democrats, but you also are very critical of the tea party, so which is it?

SEN. REID: It’s not a– it’s not [an] either/or. The tea party makes up 40 percent, I repeat, of the Republican caucus in the Senate. They control the House of Representatives. But there are people in the Senate who are breaking from that. Now, that was proven last week and you know, there’s still 60 percent of the Republicans who want to do good things, and I’m confident that some of the people who are– have tea party affiliation, I think even they’re tired of the gridlock.

The American people are sick of gridlock. We’re not doing important things. So we should all work together, even the tea party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, despite what you say, there was a low moment very recently when your counterpart, the minority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, said you were on the verge of becoming the worst majority leader the Senate had ever seen. What was your reaction?

SEN. REID: Well, Mitch was upset because I was doing, he thought that that was the wrong thing to do, and he was frustrated, but he’s, of course, changed his tune on that.

Sticks and stones will hurt my bones, but names will never hurt me. I am very happy. I’ve been the majority leader longer than anyone in the history of this country except for Mike Mansfield, and I’m proud of the work I’ve done, and so is my Democratic caucus.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what’s your relationship right now with Sen. McConnell?

SEN. REID: I think it’s– I think because of what happened last week, it’s going to be better. We’ve never been enemies, hated each other. It’s just been a little difficult to work together, and I think things will get better. That’s one of the things his Republican Congress– I was going to say ask, but told him, he’s going to have to start working, and I accept that. We’re going to have to start meeting on a regular basis. We haven’t been doing that. Bill Frist, who was his Republican predecessor, led the Senate for a number of years for the Republicans, he and I disagreed on a number of things. We met together virtually every week. And we have to get back doing that with Sen. McConnell.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the things the Senate was able to get done was comprehensive immigration reform, passed the Senate. Republicans came over, worked with Democrats. What do you think is going to happen in the House on that?

SEN. REID: We need comprehensive immigration reform. This isn’t some wild idea on the Democrats. It’s something even President Bush was a cheerleader for when he was president, and he’s still doing it, and I appreciate that very much.

Our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed. And we can fix it. We did it over here. We took take of the borders. We made sure that employers and employees aren’t in a Catch-22 with the employer sanctions legislation. We made it – need to make sure there’s a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people. We have to take care of the 800[,000], 900,000 DREAMers, they want to serve in the military, they want to go to school.

We’re not going to do it on a piecemeal basis, though. And that’s what we’re hearing in the House. There’s going to come a point– you know, it’s not often you get the National Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO agreeing on a piece of legislation. They agree not a little bit but a lot. This is important. Why? Because it reduces the debt by a trillion dollars, comprehensive immigration reform.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how confident are you that the House is going to pass comprehensive reform?

SEN. REID: Oh, it– I have– I’m kind of a pessimist at heart, Judy, but my optimism is overcoming my pessimism because I have to do it. It’s important for the economy. It’s important for the– that’s why Americans, all, Democrats, Republicans, independents, all agree it’s something we need to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just a few brief questions, Senator. One is it’s been reported the president does not have a very good relationship with the Congress. How do you see that?

SEN. REID: I’ve been here for 31 years. And every president, that’s what they throw at every president. Doesn’t matter if it’s Reagan, Bush, Carter– it doesn’t matter who it is. The president doesn’t have good relations with Congress. I mean, the only thing the president has done is had the Republicans move into the White House. He takes them to dinner all the time. He has them down to the White House. Now, some of these meetings are not public in nature, but the president reaches out to Republicans a lot. In fact, he’s reached out to them so much that some of my Democrats are jealous.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressional elections next year. A number of democratic Senate seats are up. Political experts are out there saying the Senate is ripe for the Republicans to take back control.

SEN. REID: I think realistically that’s not in the cards. We’d have to lose six seats, and that’s not going to happen. We have some really good candidates. We have a tremendous candidate who announced yesterday, Sam Nunn’s daughter in Georgia. We have the secretary of state in Kentucky who is now ahead of the Republican leader in Kentucky as we speak. We have– all my incumbents are doing just fine, a couple of retirements we’re working on. But we’re going to be fine. The American people do not like the brand of the Republicans, let’s face it. They’ve offended Hispanics, African-Americans, women, gays.

They’re going to have to do something to do a little better branding here. And so we have– and that’s why all the polls, they really — and I agree with them — I don’t like the gridlock here in Congress. I think we should be doing more important things. But all the polls show pox on the Republicans. You know, they are just not willing to work with president. And, you know, The Wall Street Journal came out of the poll today. And that clearly says the Republicans have a lot of work to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, picking up on one thing you just said, the president made remarks last week in connection with the Trayvon Martin case about how African-Americans are perceived in this country. What did you think about what he said and what does it say that there’s not a single African-American Democratic member of the U.S. Senate?

SEN. REID: Oh, just hold your breath; Cory Booker’s on his way from New Jersey. And that’ll happen in October. The president made his remarks extemporaneously. Only he could do– say what he did. I agree with David Brooks, the Republican columnist for The New York Times. And I’m paraphrasing, but not very much.

He said it was one of the most remarkable presentations he’s ever seen and thought it was one of the highlights of the president’s presidency. So I agree with him. I think this was really remarkable that he had the courage to come out and talk about what is going on in America. And he had some ability to relate to that as an individual.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, 2016, forgive me. In 2008, Senator, you were one of the first prominent figure in Washington to come out for then-Sen. Barack Obama for president, choosing him over Hillary Clinton. Of course, we know what happened. Should she run in 2016, and if she did, do you think she would win the election? What do you think her chances are?

SEN. REID: Hillary Clinton may have a bigger fan than Harry Reid; I just don’t know who it would be. I think that what she did as a senator, what she did as secretary of state will go down in history books as a remarkable, remarkable job that she did. I, of course, have such admiration for the president. Remember, the last three or four years he was here we reduced the debt and created 22 million jobs – pretty good deal. And I think that they’re a pretty good team, but she’ll handle things probably even better than he did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Oh, is that right? Even better?

SEN. REID: Oh, yeah.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Would you like to see her run?

SEN. REID: I don’t know what more I can say than — to be a cheerleader for — than what I’ve already said in this interview.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader in the Senate. We thank you for talking with us.

SEN. REID: You’re welcome.

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