Reid Says He'll Work With Republicans

This week, the 112th Congress began, with Republicans in charge in the House, and a much slimmer majority for Democrats in the Senate. Michele Norris talks with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, about the new Congress — how he'll work with Republicans, his Democratic colleague's proposal to change filibuster rules, and the Republicans' attempts to repeal the health care law.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We've spent much of this week talking about the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives and what that means for the business of Washington. Now though, we're going to the other side of Congress, to the Senate, where Democrats held on to their majority - barely.

Over the coming months, senators will wrestle with a number of contentious issues. Among them: Changes to the filibuster rules, a possible repeal of the health care law and efforts to slash the deficit.

NORRIS: In a moment, we'll look ahead with Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But first, I sat down with Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid in his Capitol Hill office, in front of a crackling fire in his fireplace.

Leader Reid, thank you so much for being with us.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Majority Leader): My pleasure.

NORRIS: Now, you still have the majority here in the Senate, although a slimmer one. How does this change things for you, the legislation going forward, your relationships with people in the minority, particularly Senator Mitch McConnell?

Sen. REID: Well, I think we proved with the lame-duck that the American people are concerned about getting things done, and my Republican colleagues recognize that. The reason we had such a successful lame-duck is we worked hard together.

I know that my friend, Mitch McConnell, has said his number one issue in this next Congress is to get rid of Obama. I don't think he really means that. I mean, I think we should be concerned about jobs and doing something about the situation we have with energy, importing all this oil from these characters we wouldn't to import oil from. I think we have to be concerned about getting tax incentives for small businesses.

So I think that's what we should focus on. And I feel comfortable with my relationship with McConnell and the Republican caucus, that we can get some good things done.

NORRIS: The lame-duck session was extraordinary. What lessons do you take from that? Is this a case where the planets just lined up, and there was this sort of unprecedented degree of cooperation? Or do you think that there are possibilities growing out of that?

Sen. REID: Of course, this is radio and you can't see the smile on my face. I finished a very difficult election, as did a number of people. And I found in that election that people were concerned about the economy more than anything else.

I also learned in that election that the American people - the people of Nevada, which is no different than people of this country - want us to work together. And I think we were able to get a lot of things done because of that. And I think - I don't want to be boastful here - but I think I know what the rules are around here, and I was able to do some things that got votes that normally we wouldn't have votes on.

NORRIS: I want to ask you about the changes to the filibuster rules -changes that your Democratic colleagues introduced this week. They would change when and how a senator could filibuster. Are these changes necessary? And help me understand, if you think they are necessary, why they're necessary.

Sen. REID: Editorial writers, Congress watchers and pundits have said we had the most productive Congress in the history of the country. But it could have been much more productive had we not had to overcome 96 filibusters, which are just a colossal waste of time.

Everyone knows that the filibuster has been abused in recent years. And we have to either by an agreement or by changing the rules here, in a forceful way, make sure that this abuse doesn't continue. It's just wrong.

NORRIS: Abuse is a strong word.

Sen. REID: You even have Chief Justice Roberts, who everyone knows his partisan stripe, has said its wrong how judges are handled here - it's just wrong. We can't have scores of the president's nominations just, in effect, thrown away. We never get a chance to vote on them. And these deliberate delays that take place to prevent us from voting on things, doesn't help the American people.

NORRIS: Now, you know that the political waves in this city are much like a sine curve - you're up one era, you're down the next. So what happens if the Democrats should find themselves in the minority? Aren't you disadvantaging yourself going forward?

Sen. REID: Anything that I'm considering has nothing to do with changing the 60-vote filibuster. There are things we can do to streamline things around here that would be very significant - things we can do that would streamline the processes around here, and does not do anything to hurt the framework of the Senate, whether you're in the majority or minority.

NORRIS: Let's turn to health care, if we could. The House today took the first step toward repealing health care. An actual vote will come up next week. Would you allow a similar repeal to come up for a vote here on the Senate side?

Sen. REID: Democrats over here in the Senate do not believe that the bill is perfect. That's why Senator Conrad, chairman of the Budget Committee, Chairman Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee, Chairman Harkin, chairman of the Health Committee are going to hold hearings on how to improve health care.

Health care bill we passed was historic and good for the American people. Are the Republicans saying - and obviously so - that they're not concerned about the deficit that repealing this bill would do?

I mean we're talking about, over the next few years, well more than a trillion dollars.

NORRIS: Now, you know they quarrel with those numbers.

Sen. REID: Well, I mean they quarrel with the numbers, that's ridiculous. I mean the Congressional Budget Office - it's not a partisan group that has said this. They are running from this issue.

Do they want to go back and say that if you have a pre-existing disability, you can't get insurance? Do they want to tell the senior citizens that the donut hole is not going to get smaller; it's going to get bigger? As of January 1st, senior citizens now get a 50 percent discount on the drugs they purchase.

This is nonsense. This repeal of this bill would put - let's see, I got to make sure I get the number right. Yeah, 32 million more people would be uninsured. Thirty-two million - what are they talking about?

NORRIS: I don't want to belabor this. But if you have the votes, why not let it come to a vote and then just move on?

Sen. REID: Because I think it's important that people understand that we do not think we got perfection with this legislation. We want to try to improve it. We don't want to try to destroy it.

NORRIS: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, thank you very much for your time.

Sen. REID: My pleasure.

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