Reid Says He's A Fighter Who'd Rather Dance The Nevada Democrat took charge five years ago, saying he wanted to work with Republicans. Since then, he's had many battles with the GOP. Reid says he's ready for more fights if necessary.
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Reid Says He's A Fighter Who'd Rather Dance

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Reid Says He's A Fighter Who'd Rather Dance

Reid Says He's A Fighter Who'd Rather Dance

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Today's primaries have two Senate Democrats fighting for their political lives; Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas and Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. The air of uncertainty also extends to other Senate Democrats this year, including their leader, Harry Reid. His bid for a fifth term in Nevada has become an uphill race.

NPR's David Welna recently sat down with Reid in the leader's office to talk about his day job at the Capitol.

DAVID WELNA: At the main entry to Harry Reid's office suite stands a small statue of Joan of Arc. The figure of the warrior saint who was burned at the stake at age 19 wields a sword that if you try it can actually be unsheathed. It's a bit emblematic of Reid himself. On the day he became Democratic leader more than five years ago, after the previous leader, Tom Daschle, lost his re-election bid, Reid sought to make nice while keeping his own sword at the ready.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Majority Leader): I said at that time, unprepared, unscripted, that I know how to fight and I know how to dance. And I'd much rather dance than fight. And I've tried to show that during my tenure as the leader. What I didn't tell everybody is I'm - I was always a better fighter than dancer.

WELNA: When it comes to Republicans, Reid has fought more than he's danced. For a time, Maine Republican Olympia Snowe was a willing dance partner, one of just three Republicans who voted for last year's big stimulus bill. But after months of negotiations on the health care overhaul, Snowe ultimately dumped Reid and voted against it.

Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): We were about crafting good policy. But in the meantime, they were negotiating sweetheart deals in the dark of night. Little did I know.

WELNA: Reid, though, says there was a clear lesson in the health care saga: You don't give up.

Sen. REID: You can't win a fight unless you're in the fight. And once you're in the fight, you have to keep fighting.

WELNA: Was the fight worth it when it comes to hanging onto his job? Reid says he is certain the more voters in Nevada learn about what the new health care law does for them, the more they're going to like it.

Sen. REID: But as to what it does in the election, election time will come. I don't know.

WELNA: Reid is currently struggling in the polls. And to survive, he'll need to motivate a lot of potential voters in Nevada. About a quarter of them are Hispanic. Many put a high priority on revamping immigration laws. Reid made headlines when he told a rally in Nevada last month he aimed to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year. At that point, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham was the only Senate Republican willing to co-sponsor such legislation. But then Graham backed out.

Sen. REID: Lindsey Graham, for reasons that I don't fully understand, was heavily involved in a lot of things we were trying to do, and I appreciated it very much. But for reasons that are, to me, I can't explain, he walked away from all of it. Just walked away from it.

WELNA: Graham, for his part, accuses Reid of rushing immigration reform in hopes of getting re-elected.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Senator Reid is losing, and he put immigration on the table to try to help his numbers back in Nevada. No serious person believes immigration reform is going to pass.

Sen. REID: Lindsey doesn't know Nevada. I am doing - I am looking at immigration reform because it is important for our country.

WELNA: Reid says it makes no sense that Republicans applaud Arizona for passing a law that gets tough on suspected illegal immigrants on the grounds Washington has failed to act and then won't let Washington act.

Still, even some of Reid's fellow Democrats think it's asking too much to do immigration overhaul this election year. Here's Arkansas' Mark Pryor.

Senator MARK PRYOR (Democrat, Arkansas): I think he knows that we have a pretty full calendar for the rest of the year. And unless we have a bill that's bipartisan, I think it's going to be hard to get it done this year.

WELNA: And it may be just as hard to do a climate change and energy bill this year, now that the sole Republican who'd been backing that legislation has backed out. Once again, it's Lindsey Graham, and the explanation, he says, is simple.

Sen. GRAHAM: Because I don't want to put my name on a product that I don't think can get there.

WELNA: Getting at least one Republican to go along with them has become paramount to Democrats since they're one vote shy of the 60 they need to thwart a filibuster. Reid thinks Republicans are showing a new willingness to work with Democrats on the financial regulatory overhaul moving through the Senate. He says the wall of GOP opposition may be crumbling.

Sen. REID: And I think that's one reason we're getting some cooperation out here on Wall Street reform, because we're going to do it with or without them. And I would rather do it with them.

WELNA: Dance, that is, rather than fight. But even on the Wall Street rules makeover, it took a fight just to bring up the bill. Three times in three days, Reid held votes to break a GOP filibuster. On the third try, he succeeded.

Sen. REID: One thing that I have tried to do as the leader of this Senate is to let people know you may knock us down once, but we'll just get back up and try it again.

WELNA: Fighting words from a man who says he'd rather dance.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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