Capital Letters: Harry Reid Speaks Out

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When you're the Senate Democratic Leader, important people see you all the time. Still, last Thursday, when former San Francisco 49er's quarterback Steve Young came to pitch the virtues of geothermal energy and then Miss Nevada stopped by, Nevada Senator Harry Reid was having a good day. In between his more exciting meetings, he sat down for an interview with TIME's Massimo Calabresi and Perry Bacon:

On the debate over a Republican proposal to stop Democrats from filibustering judicial nominees, often called the "nuclear option:" "This isn't something someone should rush into because it changes the basic framework of our country. People are beginning to see the error of the thinking, that if you don't like what's going on, change the rules. I think there's beginning to be an atmosphere in our country that shows the arrogance of power is not good. Take for example what's going on in the House. Tom Delay was censured three times within 12 months, that's unheard of, but he won't be censured again because they changed the rules. The Schiavo case is another example of overreaching."

On the Republican argument that judges aren't usually blocked before coming to a vote: "To have these senators—and my favorite is Orrin Hatch—stand up righteous and indignant and say this has never happened before is an absolute lie."

On the judicial nominees Senate Democrats have blocked during the Bush Administration, including Janice Rodgers Brown, an African American woman on the California Supreme Court: "We turned down the worst of the worst. You're talking about Janice Rogers Brown, she says the most derogatory things about our system of government that you can imagine. We turned down the worst of the worst. I'm not proud of the fact we approved 204 of them. We turned down the worst of the worst. If the American people saw their resumes, they would be turned down 99 to 1 and the 1 would be someone who couldn't read.

On Majority Leader Bill Frist: "I have great respect for Bill Frist. He's doing public service for the right reason, he's a wealthy man, he's a fine, fine physician and he's trying to do the right thing . . . . I personally don't think he'll run for president."


Dozens of members of Congress angled to be part of the congressional delegation at Pope John Paul II's last week funeral that included prominent Catholics like Ted Kennedy and Rick Santorum as well as congressional leaders from both parties. While almost nothing lawmakers do is divorced from politics, this probably has more to do with faith than votes. In the House, 129 of the 435 members are Catholic, as are 24 Senators, according to Congressional Quarterly.

Catholics are the largest single denomination, although taken as a whole members of various Protestant denominations (Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian being the largest) outnumber Catholics in both chambers. The high Catholic number isn't surprising considering that about a quarter of Americans are Catholic. But in other ways, Congress is a bit different from the American public in terms of religion. John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron who studies religion and politics, estimated that the American electorate of 2004 included about 14% of people who called themselves "unaffiliated believers," "seculars," or "atheists, agonistic." Only 6 members of the House of Representatives called their religious beliefs "unspecified" and no Senators did. In addition, the Senate has 11 Jewish members (about 3% of the electorate is Jewish) and 5 Mormons (fewer than 2% of Americans are Mormon.)


While many other members were taking days off to relax during recess two weeks ago, Indiana Rep. Mark Souder spent four days in California and Texas observing how America's borders are protected as part of his work chairing the House's narcotics subcommittee. Here are some of his thoughts on border control, immigration policy and other issues:

On the so-called Minuteman Project, a group of hundreds of volunteers watching the Arizona-Texas border because they believe the federal government isn't doing enough to stop illegal immigration: "I understand their frustrations as ranchers and so on, but we're actually having to spend federal resources watching them as well. There is no easy way for private citizens to deal with this. It's not a long term solution."

On immigration reform: "I support the president's proposal [which would create a guest workers program] unlike many of my conservative colleagues and my district probably isn't as enthusiastic as I am. All of my colleagues say we should put the military on the border. The answer would be what military, because our Guard and Reserve, they are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if we put 2,000 more border control agents, we have one million people coming in.

On passing Social Security reform: "I'm stunned how hard is it move the general public on something as simple as being allowed to invest some of your own money. If we can't get this done, how in the world are we to work on the benefit side in the future?"

On Tom Delay's efforts to mobilize conservative groups to rebut Democratic attacks on him: "I think they are trying to shore up the base. It suggests they have some concerns. I don't think it suggests there's been any major shift. But they are concerned it may be starting to penetrate beyond the Beltway or they wouldn't be doing this."


With President Bush's Social Security plan's still languishing, Republican members of Congress are beginning to offer plans that don't even include private accounts within the Social Security system. One of the more popular ideas is Florida Rep. Clay Shaw'S proposal for so-called "add-on" accounts. Realizing Democrats are adamantly opposed to private accounts funded through the 12% tax employers and employees pay into Social Security, his idea would allow workers to get a tax credit of 4% of their wages, up to $1000, that they put into savings accounts. Rather than paying for these accounts through benefit cuts or tax increases, Shaw proposes borrowing more than $3 trillion dollars to pay for this program, a number that while large, may be more politically feasible than benefit cuts or tax increases to help Social Security's solvency. Democrats have been almost universally opposed to any Republican ideas on Social Security, but Shaw says he's been meeting with Joe Lieberman and claims the former Democratic vice-presidential nominee likes his idea.

Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia spent his recess going to Social Security town halls and testing another proposal: the lockbox. In 2000, Al Gore campaigned on the idea of putting the surpluses that Social Security currently generates into a so-called "lockbox" that would prevent the government from spending the money on other things as it does now. Kingston notes many Republicans also have had this same idea and it would help mobilize public support that would give Congress credibility for a more ambitious Social Security reform in a few years.


If you happen to tune into one of the Sunday political shows and have a deja vu feeling, it's not just you. According to Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication, John McCain has already appeared on one of the Sunday shows five times since the beginning of the year. But no one can top Delaware senator and potential 2008 presidential candidate Joe Biden, who has appeared on Sunday shows seven times. Other Republicans who are strong on the list include Senate Leaders Bill Frist and Mitch McConnell. The surprise in second place is Indiana. Sen. Dick Lugar. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Lugar plays a key role in overseeing administration policy in Iraq, and unlike some Republicans, will occasionally criticize the President.