Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Democratic senators yesterday elected Harry Reid of Nevada to lead them in the next Congress, and he pledged both to cooperate with and to confront President Bush and congressional Republicans.

“I always would rather dance than fight, but I know how to fight,” he told reporters soon after the Senate Democratic Caucus elected him to lead the 44 Democrats and one Democrat-leaning independent when the next Congress opens in January.

Mr. Reid, who Nevadans just voted to a fourth term, said it’s too early to “have any marks in the sand and say you can’t step over those.” Instead, he said Democrats will look to see what steps Mr. Bush is willing to take to prove he wants to work with both parties.

“We’re going to simply wait and see what this administration wants to do. We’re going to see if they’re willing to be a uniter,” he said. “We’re willing, as I said earlier, to dance. We don’t need to fight all the time.”

While Senate Democrats were giving a unanimous nod to Mr. Reid, House Republicans on the other side of the Capitol were voting to return their entire slate of leaders for another Congress, including giving Speaker J. Dennis Hastert a fourth term. The Illinois Republican said the 109th Congress will be the “reform Congress.”

After funding the military for the war on terror, Mr. Hastert said the top priorities will be to reform the legal system and Social Security and work to make the tax code “more simple and more fair.”

House Democrats will elect their leaders today, though no shake-up is expected. Senate Republicans also vote today, although only one race — leader of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee — is hotly contested.

Mr. Reid succeeds Sen. Tom Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat who lost his seat to Republican John Thune.

Mr. Reid will have to pick up where Mr. Daschle left off with a series of filibusters, with none more prominent than those of presidential judicial nominees.

Giving an indication of where he stands, Mr. Reid said Republicans should be happy that 203 of Mr. Bush’s nominees to the federal judiciary were confirmed and only 10, all to circuit courts, faced filibusters.

“I think they are crying wolf far too much — 203 to 10 is not bad odds,” he said.

Mr. Reid also said Republicans “would be making a huge mistake” if they pursued a rules change on the filibusters of judicial nominations — something Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said last week is still an option.

“They will not always be a majority, and they’d better be very, very careful what they do,” Mr. Reid said.

Mr. Reid, coming from a Republican-leaning state, will have to do the same sort of balancing act as Mr. Daschle, who struggled to please a liberal-leaning Senate Democratic Caucus while also catering to his constituents in conservative South Dakota.

Mr. Daschle yesterday said he thinks Mr. Reid, who is pro-life and anti-gun control, is up to the challenge of being a leader.

He “brings a core set of beliefs and an innate understanding of the principles that have driven the Democratic Party over the past two centuries,” Mr. Daschle said.

House Democrats don’t expect to see any major change in Senate strategy from Mr. Reid, said one senior Democratic House aide.

The aide said Democrats don’t expect Mr. Reid to make pro-life or anti-gun-control issues a top priority for Senate Democrats and said it might even be a boon for Democrats to have a pro-life lawmaker at the head of the Senate caucus because it shows that the party welcomes diverse opinions.

Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, who seconded Mr. Reid’s nomination to the caucus, said he expects the new leader will “oppose when necessary, compromise when possible.”

“He has an exterior that is friendly, and an internal strength of fine steel that never breaks,” Mr. Nelson said.

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