Reid tapped to lead Senate Democrats
WASHINGTON – Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada won election as leader of the shrunken Democratic minority on Tuesday and said he stands ready to cooperate with Republicans or confront them as he deems necessary.
“I always would rather dance than fight. But I know how to fight,” he said at a news conference after the Democratic rank and file chose him leader for the Congress that convenes in January.
Reid won his post as House Republicans, buoyed by election gains, tapped Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois for another term as speaker. Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas was re-elected majority leader, and the balance of the GOP leadership won new terms as well.
Reid, 64, said he and Democrats would stress expanded access to health care and increased support for education. “I believe in the minimum wage and we have to raise it,” he said.
Reid also cautioned majority Republicans not to “mess with the rules” in the Senate by trying to make it easier to override Democratic objections to some of President Bush’s judicial nominations.
He said the Senate had confirmed 203 of President Bush’s court nominations over the past four years and blocked 10. “I think they are crying wolf all too often,” he said of Republicans who used the 10 thwarted nominations to label Democrats as obstructionists.
Reid takes over a party with 44 seats in the new Congress, fewer than at any time since the Great Depression. He succeeds Sen. Tom Daschle, who was defeated for re-election on Nov. 2 in South Dakota.
The 64-year-old Nevadan, who has long served as Daschle’s second-in-command, was elevated to leader in a closed-door meeting of Democrats who will serve in the Senate that convenes in January.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois was unopposed to replace Reid as the party’s whip, the Democrat’s second-ranking Senate leader.
Daschle has served as party leader since 1995, leading Democrats in periods in which they were in the minority, the majority and then back again.
There were other reminders of the Nov. 2 election as Democrats met in a historic room in the Capitol. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts participated in the session as he picked up his Senate duties two weeks after losing his bid for the White House.
Reid said Kerry won ovations from fellow Democrats several times during the closed-door meeting.
Reid has a soft spoken demeanor, but he showed an unyielding side when asked a question he did not want to answer.
“Next question,” he said when asked about his relationship with Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican who has openly flirted with switching parties.
When the reporter persisted, Reid said again, “next question.”
The Nevada lawmaker played an instrumental role in Sen. James Jeffords’ decision to leave the GOP and become an independent in 2001, a switch that gave Democrats the majority.
Reid was nominated for the party leadership job by Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who served in the post in the 1970s and 1980s. Seconding the nomination was Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who occasionally vexed Daschle by crossing party lines.
“I said he will lead this caucus into a new era and oppose where necessary, compromise where possible and avoid the obstructionist label,” Nelson said of his closed-door remarks.
With the exception of abortion rights and gun control, both of which he opposes, Reid’s recent voting record on major issues puts him in the mainstream of Senate Democrats.
A veteran of 22 years in Congress, he voted against President Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and opposed the final version of the administration’s landmark Medicare overhaul legislation in 2003.
Like a majority of Democrats, he voted to give Bush authority to use military force to oust Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and voted many months later to spend $87 billion to help pay the costs of military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, he helped bottle up a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages, and sided with organized labor when it sought to make sure no worker lost overtime rights under new administration regulations.
He’s also worked with environmentalists to block oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
As well, he’s been a loyal supporter of Democratic filibusters against 10 of Bush’s judicial nominees deemed extremists by a coalition of civil rights, women’s and other groups.