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Reid Seeks Message ‘Change’

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says Democrats over the next 10 months will pivot away from an effort to highlight accomplishments in the Senate and instead will make the case that the party is an “agent of change” and needs a wider margin of control in order to meet the American people’s expectations.

While saying Democrats are proud of the work they have done over the past year, Reid acknowledged in an interview with Roll Call last week that his party’s weakness has been its focus on legislative accomplishments rather than a broader message of change.

The problem has been in “trying to effectuate to the American people the things we’ve accomplished and that we’re agents of change,” Reid said. “And that is something that I think is becoming more obvious by the day. The American people expect so much out of us … and I think our Achilles’ heel is that people [expect] our accomplishments to be more than we could do.

“We need to start moving the target from our accomplishments, which we’re proud of, to that we are agents of change,” Reid explained, adding that the process of shifting his Conference’s message focus is under way. “We are doing that. … We tried to do all these good things and the American people said ‘OK, we’re glad you did these but we want more done.’ So our goal has to [be to] let the American people know we need change in the Senate. We need more Senate seats. I can’t complete massive change with having a majority of one.”

Noting strong Democratic prospects in Virginia, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Colorado, Reid said “we have opportunities in so many different places. We have opportunities in Mississippi, North Carolina, Maine, Alaska and on and on. So that’s my goal, to let the American people know how important it is that we change the makeup of the Senate so we can do things.”

‘In the Minority as the Majority’

Reid defended his party’s record this year, saying that Sen. Tim Johnson’s (D-S.D.) illness essentially eliminated his already thin majority for much of the session — a dynamic that, in the context of Iraq, was compounded by Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (ID-Conn.) support for the war.

“My majority one year ago dropped from 51 to 50,” Reid said. “I worked for nine months this year with a majority of one. Tim Johnson was sick. On issues dealing with Iraq, I was in the minority. Joe Lieberman supports me in everything except Iraq. So every time we brought something up on Iraq, I was in the minority, 49 to 50.

“So I say to all those who criticize: Think of what I had to work with. I had no majority most of the time. The No. 1 issue facing the people of America, the war in Iraq, I was in the minority, and I would say that this little Caucus of 49 Senators did pretty well. We had a few Republicans who joined us on occasion, but I can’t ever think of apologizing to anyone for the fight we’ve put up much of the time being in the minority as the majority.”

Reid acknowledged that the party still has several unfulfilled goals. “We believe in change, and that’s the message we gave the American people. And we have effected change,” he said.

“Have we stopped the war in Iraq? No. have we gotten health care? No. Have we improved education? No. But we have been able to do what we’ve done. We’ve done a lot of things. We did the most significant lobbying [and] ethics reform in the history of the country; minimum wage; higher education; some say the biggest change since we did the GI bill of rights; mental health parity and a long list of things. … We’re very happy with our accomplishments, and we’ve done them under a great handicap. … So those people who say we haven’t done enough, with all due respect, we’ve done quite a bit with very little.”

Disappointment With Bush

Reid also expressed frustration with the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill, saying that despite early indications last year that Republicans would be more independent from President Bush following the 2006 elections, “they have followed the president with everything.”

Reid also said that while Bush has publicly and privately expressed a desire to work with Democrats, the administration has shown little interest in practice.

“My disappointment comes from the fact that when I was elected after [then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.)] lost … President Bush said he wanted to work with us. I believed him. Well, it didn’t work that way. After it was learned [and] I was going to be the Majority Leader, he called me and said, ‘I want to work with you.’ But this is all just talk, there is no give at all. No give at all.”

However, with the 2008 elections fast approaching — and Bush entering the final year of his presidency — Reid said he remains hopeful next year will be a productive year in the Senate.

“I do have more hope next year. I say that because the elections are fast approaching and … I think there are Republican Senators who’ll say … ‘I’m not too sure this is the right thing to do,’” Reid said, adding that he also hopes Bush, whose legacy will be dominated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a still partisan political climate at home, also will be more willing to compromise.

“I had hope, I have hope now. I hope we can finish this session on a constructive basis. It would seem to … be to the president’s advantage [to do so]. … It would seem to me that we would all be better off if we ended on a high note. Get our spending done, whatever problems we have with war funding and all these other things that people are complaining about. Let’s try to end on a high note.

“If [Bush is] going to have any legacy its going to happen in his last year because the legacy he has now I don’t think he’d feel very good about.”

Friends and Foes

But despite his general criticism of Republicans and his harsh words for Bush, Reid refused to offer any critique of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Calling McConnell a friend, Reid said he sees little use in either Leader taking shots at each other and said he enjoys a good working relationship with McConnell.

“I’m not going to get into that. It would be very inappropriate for me to get into that. … I feel that the two Leaders should not criticize each other. I mean, I’ll go out and argue with him … but I just don’t think its appropriate for me to talk about what I think he does is not good or what I think is great.”

(That ban on criticizing fellow Leaders did not apply to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist [R], whom Reid chastised frequently before the Tennessean retired.)

Reid did, however, offer strong praise for outgoing Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), with whom he often sparred on the Senate floor during his six years as Daschle’s Whip.

“For me personally, I will miss Trent Lott immeasurably. … Trent Lott and I did many deals, many legislative deals. He was a deal-maker, he was great to work with and I’ll miss him a lot. … I told Trent when I talked to him after I learned he was quitting that he had never ever misled me or done anything he said he wouldn’t do. He was always a man of his word.”

Despite that loss, Reid seemed particularly upbeat about his party’s chances of winning Lott’s seat. “I think we have a better than 50-50 chance to pick up that seat. … I think we’re going to really do well in Mississippi and could change the country for generations to come. That should be a Democratic state.”

Favorable Playing Field

Reid also was optimistic about the broader electoral landscape. He said that while predictions by some Democratic insiders of a nine-seat pickup are overblown, he believes the party will pad his 51-seat majority by at least four or five seats next fall. Reid also said he and other party strategists have become increasingly confident about the prospects of their small handful of endangered incumbents, including Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu.

“She’s doing pretty well. We were concerned about that, but the polling numbers look great [and] she has an extremely good name in Louisiana,” Reid said.

“We were, early on, worried about Tim Johnson, [Arkansas Sen.] Mark Pryor and Mary. [Now] we’re certainly not worried about Mark Pryor, we’re certainly not worried about Tim Johnson — he’s going to start traveling around to show people [he] can do this. So we’re in good shape,” Reid said, adding that Landrieu is the “only one that we’re looking at and she looks so good it’s nothing to worry about.”

As for his own political future, Reid said he will run for re-election in 2010 and that he believes a recent slump in the polls — particularly back in Nevada — is a temporary result of being the face of the national party along with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

While Reid wishes “people in the state of Nevada looked at me like I was Babe Ruth,” the reality of being Senate Majority Leader with a Republican president has forced him into a more partisan stance that many in Nevada are familiar with.

“I’m the face of the Democrats. Speaker Pelosi and I share that, and I take a lot of the arrows,” Reid said, adding that the realities of the Senate mean that “a lot of the things that I do are very partisan. It’s hard for the people of the state of Nevada to accept me as a partisan person.”

Reid, who has enjoyed strong support from his Members this year, said he has no plans to relinquish control of his job so long as his peers are happy with his performance. Reid will remain the Democratic Leader “as long as the Caucus wants me. … It’s a very rewarding job. And as [former Majority Leader] George Mitchell [D-S.D.] said, ‘It’s the best job in the world, especially when we’re out of session.’”