Reid Prepares for Role as Majority Leader Current Minority Leader Harry Reid is next in line to lead the Senate. Reid talks about plans for policy changes, as Democrats prepare to take control of Congress.

Reid Prepares for Role as Majority Leader

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From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

The Democrats have had six years to say what they would do if they were in power. Now it's their turn to run the Congress. Current Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is next in line to lead the Senate. And as he told me earlier, he's already making plans for big policy changes.

Senator Reid, thanks for joining us.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): It's really my pleasure.

CHIDEYA: So you must be elated by recent turns of events and voters speaking their minds. Is it time for you and your colleagues in the Senate to pay back the Republican Party that shut you out of a lot decision-making, or is it time to play nice?

Sen. REID: I believe in the Golden Rule. Just because someone treats you poorly doesn't mean you should treat them the same. I think what we need to do is by example show them what they should have done with us. This - the Congress was setup by our founding fathers, and it's worked well for some 200 years. The past six years hasn't worked well because we've had no legislative branch of government; the president has controlled everything.

He doesn't now. And so we have reached out to him and said, Mr. President, we want to work with you. We want to get something done with minimum wage. We want to do something for energy independence so we're not importing 65 percent every day of 21 million barrels of oil being paid for by money we borrow from China and Saudi Arabia. I think we need to do something to allow a kid to go to school not because their parents are rich but because they are able to learn.

We have to do something to stop these staggering deficits and do something to reverse what's going on in Iraq. And I think we need to work together on this.

CHIDEYA: In reading a recent profile of you in The New York Times, I was really struck by how much you had to do to get to where you are. You hitchhiked to high school 40 miles away. You dealt with the death of your father. You worked to put yourself through law school. What does it really mean to you to make sure that people have an equal footing in American society? And you just mentioned some of the things that you support, like raising the minimum wage. But how are you going to achieve that?

Sen. REID: Well, I really believe that part of this job that I have is to allow people to have the same opportunities I've had. You're right. Maybe I didn't live in the ideal situation. We had no inside toilet. No hot water. My parents were uneducated. My mother never graduated from high school. My dad graduated from the eighth grade. But in America it doesn't matter. And America has gotten so much better.

You know, today, it doesn't matter the color of your skin, what your religion is, how much money your parents have. And that's what I have work for every day here in Washington, to allow other people to be just - have the same opportunities I've had. And those opportunities have been taken away from us in recent years. We've got to change that.

CHIDEYA: Do you really believe that the color of your skin doesn't matter anymore? I mean we saw in Michigan the initiative to end affirmative action.

Sen. REID: In answer to your question, the question is a good one. Does it matter? Of course it matters, but not as much as it used to. You look in my office, I have people of color as you walk through my office. That would not have happened in Washington 20 years ago, but it happens now. Of course, look what happened to Harold Ford. I personally - and I hope I'm not creating a lot of controversy here - I believe Harold Ford, Jr. was beaten because of the color of his skin. You saw the racist ads that were run and turned that around by a few points. But that doesn't mean he wasn't the best candidate we had running. And that doesn't mean he's not going to get back in public service and show people that he can win. So the answer to your question, I repeat, no. All race problems are not done away with, we know that, but we've gotten better.

CHIDEYA: How do you deal with leadership within the Democratic Party? There are people like yourself who are against abortion. There are people who say pull the troops out now. How do you, working with presumably in the future Congresswoman Pelosi, with the head of the Democratic Party, you know, create...

Sen. REID: Yes.

CHIDEYA: ...create a functional big tent, I guess?

Sen. REID: (Unintelligible) your first question. Everyone agrees - pro-life, pro-choice - I hope, that the number one goal should be reduce abortions. Now I approach this in a different way. I approach it by let's see what we can do to stop unwanted pregnancies in this country, half of which wind up in abortions. We agree on that. Howard Dean and I are very good friends. We disagree on a lot of things - on I shouldn't say a lot of things, on some things. I think he's done a remarkably good job these past two years.

And Nancy Pelosi and I are partners. We work together on what's going on in this country. We'll continue to do that; we have for the last two years. And we have a very big tent. And that's one of the reasons we've been able to do what we've done. These past two years we've shown the American people that the Democrats do have a big tent. We have some real conservative people in our caucus and some real liberal people in our caucus, but we have been unified in recognizing that the country must change direction not only in Iraq but here at home.

CHIDEYA: It seems to me that right now when you look at Washington you are going to see a whole bunch of power shifts. You know, it's from the committee chairs in the House and the Senate all the way to the way people think about what's going to happen in 2008. If you could just do one thing, I know you will do many things, but if you could just do one thing in the Senate for the next two years until President Bush's term ends, what would it be?

Sen. REID: To have President Bush live up to what he told me he wanted to do in the White House today. And what is that? Work on a bipartisan basis. Remember he came to town saying he wanted to be a unifier and not a divider. That was Orwellian, it didn't work out that way. I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt that these next two years he will be a man of his word and work with us on a bipartisan basis. If he's willing to do that, this country will achieve some goals because we here in the Senate, we Democrats and Nancy Pelosi, are going to work to accomplish legislative things we're going to send to the president.

CHIDEYA: Finally, African-Americans seem to have played a key role in this Election; in many races, it was this African-American districts that pushed Democratic candidates over the top through loyalty to the party. There's only one African-American senator, you mentioned Harold Ford's defeat. Obviously, there's the Congressional Black Caucus, it's mainly based in the House. But how will you interact to really deal with the issues facing African-Americans today?

Sen. REID: I don't think there's a leader that we've had in the Senate that has worked more closely with the Congressional Black Caucus. I'm a product of the House. I came over here from the House. The Congressional Black Caucus is an integral part of what goes on here in Washington. I would say if we look at what happened in these elections, we are in the majority because of the African-American vote.

There are other reasons, but I am concerned when we have the Republicans frankly are now talking about renewing the Voting Rights Act, and then in these elections sending out these bogus robocalls and all the other hideous things they've done. And what I want to do is make sure that in the future, that when people do things like this, it's not a civil penalty, it's a crime. We've got to bring more people into the elective process, not shut them out as the Republicans tried to do this election.

CHIDEYA: Senator Reid, thank you so much for joining us.

Sen. REID: Thank you for allowing me to be on your show.

CHIDEYA: That was Democratic Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, expected soon to be the next majority leader.

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