Sen. Harry Reid, the leading candidate for Senate minority leader, plans to oppose vigorously President Bush’s second-term agenda, especially on such issues as tort reform and Social Security partial privatization.
“There’s not going to be a lay-down,” Mr. Reid said of congressional Democrats. “The president knows that he’s not going to get anything done unless he works with us.”
In an interview Friday with Las Vegas One, a local cable news channel, the Nevada Democrat acknowledged that Mr. Bush could “jam a few things through” Congress without the Democrats.
But Mr. Reid made clear that Democrats could derail the bulk of the Bush agenda, despite the fact that Republicans padded their majorities in the House and Senate in last week’s election.
The day after the contest, Mr. Bush telephoned Mr. Reid and other influential Democrats, including the president’s vanquished opponent, Sen. John Kerry, to discuss the importance of bipartisanship.
“He’s going to continue to reach out across partisan lines,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday. “You can expect the president will reach out to all those who want to work together to accomplish our shared priorities.”
Mr. Reid told the cable station he was receptive to the call, although he also issued a warning to Mr. Bush.
“Mr. President, I’m going to work with you every chance I can,” Mr. Reid recalled having said. “But I’m also going to tell you when I think you’re wrong, and when I think you’re doing the wrong thing.”
Asked by Las Vegas One whether he shared the president’s priorities of tort reform, tax simplification, Social Security partial privatization and higher education standards, Mr. Reid said his own priorities were reining in the costs of gasoline, college and health care.
“Before we get into the so-called ‘big-picture’ items, we have to worry about people’s pocketbooks,” he said.
But Mr. McClellan said reform of Social Security is an urgent imperative.
“It was something that was debated and discussed at length during the campaign,” he said. “The American people spoke very clearly that they support the president’s agenda.
“And that includes the president’s views on allowing younger workers to invest a small portion of their Social Security funds in personal retirement accounts,” he added. “And we will move forward on it, working closely with Congress.”
Mr. Reid, however, showed little interest in the president’s plan.
“For someone who wants to privatize Social Security, they’re going to have to look for somebody to go to bed with other than me. I’m not going to do that,” he said. “Privatizing Social Security will destroy Social Security as we know it.”
The Democrat was equally uninterested in the sort of sweeping tort reform provided by the president, who spent much of the campaign lamenting that trial lawyers and excessive lawsuits are driving good doctors out of business.
“As far as tort reform, I know this may not be politically correct, but I believe that people who are injured deserve some [way] of being made whole,” Mr. Reid said.
“Hospitals and doctors killed about 100,000 Americans last year,” he added. “Should we just shovel that under the rug?”
Mr. McClellan said the president wants to “build on” the education reforms of his first term, which consisted primarily of passing the No Child Left Behind Act. But Mr. Reid called the act a “disaster” that has “put a big dent in public education.”
“I don’t know what the president’s talking about,” he said. “But what I think we should talk about is tuition tax credits, so that a middle-class mom and dad can send their kids to college.”
Mr. Reid, who currently is minority whip, is expected to succeed Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who lost his bid for re-election last week, as Senate minority leader. He shrugged off grumblings from pundits that the post should go to a more dynamic, charismatic Democrat.
“I’m the face of the Democratic Party today,” he declared. “I’m not too sure that we need a show horse at this stage. I think maybe a work horse may be what the country needs.”
Despite his differences with the president, Mr. Reid pledged to seek compromises with him and the increasingly dominant Republican Party. He likened himself to a receiver on a football team with the president playing quarterback.
“Just to throw a pass when it’s already out of bounds is not going to work,” he said. “You have to throw that ball so it’s inbounds, so I can catch it and work with you.”