December 22nd, 2010

Transcript: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on John King, USA

Tonight, CNN’s John King interviewed Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) on the lame duck session in Congress. The full transcript follows.

JOHN KING, HOST: The man even Republicans begrudgingly give a great deal of credit for all of the advancements in the lame duck session in Congress, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, joins us now from his office on Capitol Hill.

Senator, I want to get to some of the specifics, but I want to start with what might be the ultimate irony. This is the lame duck session and in this campaign year, Republicans had hoped to make you target number one, lame duck number one, if you will. They tried so hard to beat you in the campaign, you won the campaign, you came back and you had what, by all accounts, was a very, very successful lame duck session. How?

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: We had a very successful Congress up to the midterm elections. Norm Ornstein, famous pundit Congress watcher, said it was the most productive Congress in the history of the country.

The midterm elections proved to me, Democrats and Republicans during this lame duck session what the American people wanted was for us to work together. And I think you saw in this very short and congested work period that we had is Democrats and Republicans working together. We accomplished a lot of stuff, and we did it cause we worked together.

KING: Well, not everybody is happy about that. I want you to listen here to Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. He believes that you took it to the Republicans pretty good. Listen to his choice of words.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: When it’s all going to be said and done, Harry Reid has eaten out lunch. This has been a capitulation in two weeks of dramatic proportions of policies that wouldn’t have passed in the new Congress.


KING: Did you eat the Republicans lunch? You get to capitulate on things that would never have passed next time?

REID: I don’t think we need to sit back and look at what might have been, what could have been. What we do know is that we passed a very important bill to stimulate the economy, we passed a very important bill of child nutrition to help kids all over America.

I have a woman by the name of Linda Rivera (ph) whose medical bills are $5 million. She ate some raw cookie dough and is very, very sick. That’s what food safety is all about.

The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was to get away with discrimination in America today, it was a civil rights issue.

The START Treaty reestablished America’s standing in world community. We have to talk about the things we were able to do.

The 9/11 for these poor, first responders who responded in a heroic way, we now have given them assistance and help that they deserve. You heard this from Rachel Maddow, you heard it from Bill Reilly (sic), it was the right thing to do. And so O’Reilly and Maddow were right, we had to get this done.

So Lindsey Graham and I are friends. I’m sorry he feels that way. I’m sorry he didn’t join with us. He’s a — he’s an outstanding advocate and I’m sure we will work together in the future.

But let’s not talk about Harry Reid eating their lunch. What we were able to do together is very, very good things for our country.

KING: You mentioned you consider this — and you mentioned Mr. Ornstein, the most productive Congress in some time, on the floor on Friday when you were fighting the START Treaty at a time when it’s future, it’s ratification was in doubt, you said that of all the things done in this Congress, this was nothing — nothing more important than this START Treaty, those are your words.

Do you really believe that? Health care reform was passed in this Congress, financial reform, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Is START Treaty the most important or was that a bit of hyperbole at the moment?


REID: Well, you know, John, whatever I’m working on at the time seems the most important.


KING: In context, what do you think? Looking back at the past two years, not just the past two weeks, what was the most important thing you did?

REID: Well, as I look back over this Congress, there was so many things we worked so hard on. I mean, something like the Public Lands Bill, that was hard to get done. Lilly Ledbetter. For the first time in the history of our country we now have the FBI controlling tobacco. Credit card legislation. We did health care reform, we did Wall Street reform. We did national service legislation, we did the Hire Act, Small Business Administration. It was so important to stimulate the economy as much as it did.

So there isn’t any one thing that I look back on as the thing that is the most important. I say everything that we worked on at the time was extremely important, and we were able to get it done. You can go back and all you folks who are pundits and talking heads (ph), can talk about how we got it done, but we got it done. I am very comfortable with the place of this Congress in history.

KING: One of the things that came up in the lame duck session that you were forced to compromise on was you tried to bring the 19-page omnibus spending bill to the floor and there were a lot of complaints that it was loaded up with earmarks. You went to the floor and called the Republicans hypocrites, saying they were criticizing that bill but in the little bit of a wink that they, you know, cynically wanted it to pass even though they were criticizing it because they wanted all their earmarks.

Then the Republicans did hold together, sir, and they forced you to pull that bill from the floor and instead negotiate what we call a continuing resolution here in Washington to fund the government through March, no earmarks.

Do you owe those Republicans an apology?

REID: Oh, of course not. I am a real advocate for congressionally directive (ph) spending. I don’t apologize to anyone.

KING: But you call them hypocrites.

REID: The Republicans are wrong. I am not going to give any of my power that I have constitutionally to the president of the United States, whether it’s Barack Obama or George Bush, and that’s wrong. The omnibus would have been so important.

Because of what they did, there are 300,000 children in America who are not now able to get Head Start. Oh, that’s not good. We have thousands and thousands of people who are now can no longer get health care.

This legislation, this omnibus was the right thing to do. And my friends who agreed — we have nine Republicans who agreed to support us on this, but I guess the heat got too much even for them — they knew that this was the right thing to do, but the pressure was such that they relented and backed off.

But it was still worth the effort. I’d try it again any time because I believe that we’re going to get back to giving the rightful power to Congress. We have an obligation constitutionally to help spend money.

KING: You just mentioned the president of the United States, Barack Obama, and you’re a team player, sir, and you also recover very well after rough moments, and I give you credit for that as a politician, but how raw, how raw did you feel personally being essentially iced out of these negotiations in the end when it was the vice president negotiating with Leader McConnell and the Republicans on the other side a tax compromise deal that you and the leadership on the House knew nothing about at the outset?

REID: John, I was not iced out. I made a decision not to get involved in the negotiation. I was invited to many meetings. The president will tell you that, Joe Biden will tell you that. I made a decision that these negotiations were something that I thought the president should do on his own. I did not want to go to my caucus and tell the caucus that I’d agreed to these tax cuts for rich people.

I’m satisfied with the ultimate package. I think the president did an outstanding job negotiating things for the American people. But I was not in favor of tax cuts for people making more than a million dollars a year.

KING: As you know, you personally don’t like that. Many members of your caucus don’t like that. On the House side, you might say it’s even a bit more intense. I want you to listen here to Peter DeFazio, who was furious at the president for negotiating this compromise.

Let’s listen.

I’ll read you what he said here, sir. He said, “the President has allowed himself to be blackmailed by Senate Republicans and I will not support it. Compromise requires give and take, but once again, the middle class gave and the millionaires took.”

Are you worried that this is a — in the Clinton days, we called it triangulation, is this is new Barack Obama? Is he going to put himself ahead of maybe what the Democratic base thinks?

REID: I know Peter DeFazio very, very well. I like him a lot, but he’s wrong. The president did a very, very good job of making sure that the American people were taken care of, that the economy continues to grow, that people who are out of work can draw unemployment benefits still.

That the great middle class programs that were destined to go out of business are now part of the law of this country because of Barack Obama and Joe Biden. They did an outstanding job. And though I like Peter DeFazio, he’s absolutely wrong. The president did a good job. He did a good job without me.

KING: Did the president do a good job when he said those — who were criticizing him, including Mr. DeFazio and many members of your conference, were sanctimonious?

REID: I’ve heard that term kicked around a little bit. It’s easy to take words out of context. I don’t do much name calling on purpose. So I don’t know what that is all about, but I don’t consider that anything that was directed toward me.

KING: You’re auditioning for secretary of State here. It’s quite admirable, Leader Reid.

I want to look ahead to the next Congress, because when you come back, you’ll have a Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner. You will still be the leader in the Senate, but you will have a more narrow Democratic majority. And here’s what Leader McConnell said just the other day to Politico: “There’s much for Democrats to be angst ridden about. If they think it’s bad now, wait till next year.”

What do you think he meant by that?

REID: I don’t know what he meant by that. I think that now that we have 53 and not 58, I think that we’re going to be obligated to make sure that Mitch McConnell believes that he is part of the process. I’m going to do everything I can to work with Mitch. He and I have a very fine relationship, and I don’t know why he made that statement.

But he’s made statements to me personally that he wants to get a lot of things done. Now we have an idea of how we can get things done. We’re going to try to get our appropriations bills done. We’re going to have a run at energy legislation. As you know, there’s a number of Republicans who want to do comprehensive immigration reform. I look forward to working with them on that issue.

So I don’t — I’m not going to be challenging what Mitch said in whatever segment (ph)he was in other than to say that my conversation with him has been very positive about the next year.

KING: He’s also going to have in his caucus a couple of Tea Party members, Mike Lee from Utah, Rand Paul from Kentucky. You ran against somebody who espouses pretty much the same platform. You defeated Sharron Angle, but how much do you think that will change Leader McConnell’s job and then, by extension, your job as well having that presence in the Senate?

REID: I had dinner with Rand Paul. I find him to be a very, very sincere person. I think that he’s not going to be the flamethrower that people think he is.

Mike Lee was my neighbor. He was my son Josh (INAUDIBLE) best friend. I’m not worried about Mike. He’s a very fine young man.

KING: Have you seen a change in the president since the election in how he approaches things and how he’s trying to govern?

REID: I’m sorry, John, say that again.

KING: Have you seen a change in the president, President Obama, since the election in how he’s dealing with problems and issues or how he’s trying to govern?

REID: No. I was with the president today. I find him to be very confident. I find him always to be the man of humility that I have gotten to know. And he’s, of course, a brilliant man. I think he’s about the same guy he always was.

KING: Next year the biggest issue will be the president says deficit reduction needs to be a priority. The Republicans say deficit needs to be a priority. I know you would like to deal with that, sir. How about starting this debate by — they could not get the super majority when the Bowles-Simpson Commission met, but how about starting this debate by putting that proposal before the United States Senate and say, let’s test the seriousness of everybody? Democrats would have to come to the table and talk about Medicare, Social Security, some domestic spending cuts, but Republicans would also have to come to the table and have an open mind about revenue increases, tax increases. Why not do that?

REID: I think it’s a wrong approach. I think what we have to do is what the legislation of Judd Gregg introduced along with Tim Conrad. That was a fine piece of legislation and that’s the one you’ll remember that I called a vote on it and seven Republicans who cosponsored the legislation didn’t vote for it. So that’s why we had to go with the presidential appointed commission.

The reason I like that legislation so very, very much is because it said, OK, we’ll have the commission act, it’ll come back to the Senate, there’ll be no filibusters, no amendments. It’s up or down, just like we did for the base closing commission. That worked out extremely well.

And I would say to you, John, and everyone within the sound of my voice, I think we should all understand how serious it is when you have one of the liberals of the whole country, Dick Durbin, fine man but a liberal, and Tom Coburn, and conservative, a real conservative, so you have somebody on the left, somebody on the right, they joined hands and they said we need to do something about this deficit. I think that speaks pretty big volume of work and we have to do something about it.

I think we’re going to get something done, but I think it would be based on the Judd Gregg-Kent Conrad legislation. Let’s not — we don’t need to spend a lot of time here amending and debating. What we need to do is have, just like with — we had bases that had been in existence since World War I we couldn’t close, and we did it with that base closing commission because we couldn’t amend it, we couldn’t filibuster it and we had to belly up the bar and vote yes or no. And we did that, we closed scores of bases.

If we do the same thing on this base — as the base closing commission, the same type of legislation we had in the base closing commission as we have the deficit reduction commission, we’ll get it done.

KING: And you truly believe things of that size, scope and importance can get done when we come out to a new year with divided government in which, sir, you know this as well as I do, the presidential campaign will be starting even before we say happy new year?

REID: Some of the most important legislation has been passed with divided government. There’s nothing wrong with divided government. I would rather we still had 60 votes in the Senate, we have the White House and we have a heavy majority in the House, but that’s not the way it is.

Divided government does not mean you can’t get things done. Legislation is the art of compromise. And when you have divided government, that’s when you have to compromise.

KING: Let me ask you a couple of personal questions in closing, sir.

You had a hell of a year. You had a very tough reelection campaign, you came back to the lame duck session, you didn’t sleep last night and you’re quite tired today and being gracious with your time. What most did Harry Reid learn in this rollercoaster election year?

REID: Well, John, to be very honest with you, I’ve been married a long time. In March, when we were just completing our legislation (INAUDIBLE) health care, my wife was involved in a very, very terrible accident. Broke her neck in two places, broke her back, extensive surgery on her face. So what I learned in this year with the reelection and all the other things we dealt with is it’s very important to have a companion that is supportive. And without being to dramatic here, John Kyl and I, he asked me today, said how is your wife doing. I said, John, she’s doing just fine.

We believe — I have a right to believe whatever I want to believe, that the prayers of people all across Nevada and this country who wrote and told us that they were praying for my wonderful wife, we think that’s why she’s well.

So this has been a tough year, but it’s been a year thaTt I’ll never forget and one that I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to be part of this great country and move it forward in my estimation.

KING: That’s a nice place to stop. We wish you a great holiday, sir.

And we wish you a well deserved break and to send our best wishes to your wife as well.

REID: Thank you very much.

KING: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, thank you, sir.