Q&A: A Call to Action
Senate Minority Whip Foresees Revamped Energy, Highway Bills Passing
ROLL CALL EXECUTIVE EDITOR MORTON KONDRACKE: How do you rate the chances of passing both the transportation and an energy bill this year?
SENATE MINORITY WHIP HARRY REID: I think that with the slimmed-down energy bill, the chances of that passing are pretty good. It’s got the [methyl tertiary-butyl ether] provision out of it. It’s got the nuclear stuff that’s not pronounced as it was, so I think the chances that it passes are pretty good. The highway bill, unless the [House] Republican leadership have lost all direction, I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t pass.
ROLL CALL: OK, let’s start with the transportation bill. The president says he is going to veto. Do you think he means it?
REID: As I said on the Senate floor more than once, I dare him to veto it. With the job situation as it is — nearly 9 million people unemployed — the only president since Herbert Hoover to have a net loss of private sector jobs, almost 3 million, and here is the first real jobs bill that he’s had. … [Senate Majority Leader] Bill Frist [R-Tenn.] sent me a long BlackBerry message about what a great thing it is to pass this highway bill. I mean, [the e-mail is] just long: “historic level of investment in our nation’s transportation infrastructure, will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, support our economic development in new communities.”
That’s from Bill Frist, that’s not from me.
ROLL CALL: And you on your own, you say?
REID: I think it’s a tremendously important bill. That’s why I worked so hard to get it done.
ROLL CALL: Democrats are charging that the president has got a $500 billion deficit and yet you want to spend up to the max on highways. Is there not a conflict there?
REID: Whoever is spewing this doesn’t know what they’re talking about. The fact of the matter is that this does not create a deficit. It’s paid for out of the highway trust fund and with taxes that are already in place. The Finance [Committee] came up with a package of no new taxes, but just rearranging some that are directed at the highway fund. This does not add to the deficit one penny.
ROLL CALL: The methods of financing don’t constitute gimmicks?
REID: I don’t see why anyone would say it’s a gimmick. Everything is paid for. So I think that is also part of the cheerleading for Bush. He’s trying to do something. He’s created this tremendously difficult economic situation we have with his failed economic policies and I think now he’s trying to say: “Please let me have something that I can show I’m trying to get the balance into the budget.” No, it’s not a gimmick. The only gimmicks are those saying it’s a deficit spending problem.
ROLL CALL: Is there a significant difference between $318 billion, the Senate number, and Bush’s $256 billion?
REID: Is there a difference? Of course, you’ve got about $62 billion or whatever the number is. That’s how much it is. Which is probably, I don’t know how many, I mean, it’s millions of jobs.
ROLL CALL: Does it look to you as though the House will be able to pass a bill at all? I know it’s not your domain.
REID: You’ve got [Transportation and Infrastructure] Chairman [Don] Young [R-Alaska] over there, who wants a bill and it’s so easy to pass a bill in the House compared to the Senate. We did the heavy lifting over here. It’s so hard with our rules. In the House it’s easy to pass a bill. The Republican leadership wants a bill, they can get a bill.
ROLL CALL: But they don’t want to raise the gas tax.
REID: Well, we haven’t raised the gas tax either.
ROLL CALL: So what you’d recommend is that they just pass your bill?
REID: I think that if they were concerned about the economy of the country, the infrastructure of this country and their president, the Republicans should rush to pass this bill.
ROLL CALL: Is this bill fair to donor states and recipient states?
REID: This is the fourth or fifth bill that I’ve done, and this bill is so fair. When I started in all this business, some states were getting less than 80 cents on the dollar compared to what they put in. And as you know in some states that meant lots and lots of money. We moved it up to 85 cents, 90.5 cents, 12 years ago and now we’ve moved it up to 95 cents. It used to be that we would not worry about donor/donee states. We felt this time it would be fair to bring it up to something that is more realistic, and so now at the end of this bill every state will get at least 95 cents.
ROLL CALL: When you say 95 cents, that is what they will get in return — 95 percent of what they contribute in gasoline taxes?
REID: But keep in mind it used to be less than 80. And also understand that some of these states are huge — Texas, Florida, California, New York — so it’s really quite remarkable that we’ve been able to do that.
ROLL CALL: [Sen.] Rick Santorum [R-Pa.] and others were complaining about huge disparities between states, Pennsylvania versus Colorado, for example.
REID: Well, of course you have to understand we could have even bigger disparities than that. Look at Alaska, look at Wyoming. Look at North Dakota. Let’s keep in mind that all those states are bridge states. Some of them have extremely difficult weather conditions and this is an interstate highway system that we have. If we allocated money on the basis of a dollar out and a dollar in, some states would suffer and would not be able to maintain their roads properly. The whole interstate system would suffer. So Santorum and [Sen. Arlen] Specter [R-Pa.] were concerned because the formula didn’t treat them as well as other places. But it’s a formula. We had a formula we put in the computer and we had almost 300 runs to come up with something as fair as we did.
ROLL CALL: Is there any reason for the Senate to think about going down to Frist’s number of $290 billion, as a compromise to get this thing done?
REID: If anything, I think we should go higher rather than lower. But I do say I do very much appreciate Bill Frist hanging in as well as he has. He’s had tremendous pressure from people in his own leadership in the Senate and from the administration. I throw Bill Frist lots of bouquets because he may have wavered, but he didn’t stagger at all. And he helped us push this through. But for him we couldn’t have got it done. So I appreciate his work on this.
ROLL CALL: Let’s turn to the energy bill now. This cutting, this trimming down from $32 billion to $14 billion — you think should enable this to pass both houses?
REID: Yeah, I think. Here’s what we have, we have the MTBE out of it. We’ve got the nuclear component that I already talked about out of it. I think it’s not everything that I want. I would like a little more for alternative fuels and I think it’s not as environmentally sensitive as I would like it. But remember even with the MTBE provision in it, it came within two votes of having cloture invoked on it. So I think this will pass fairly easy. Now I was in the White House and I heard [House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay [R-Texas] say he would never let a bill out that didn’t have MTBE in it. That is, they would not be held responsible. So if they stick to that then there won’t be an energy bill. We would never allow that to happen.
ROLL CALL: Why would you not allow that to happen?
REID: Well in our Caucus, the vast majority of our folks don’t like the MTBE thing in it. And as you know we have a significant number of Republicans who feel the same way.
ROLL CALL: Just briefly on the merits, what is the MTBE controversy about?
REID: MTBE is a fuel additive to make fuel less polluting. But what we didn’t know at the time was that MTBE is polluting. For example, at Lake Tahoe in my state, the MTBE additives in the fuel have polluted the ground water. You can’t drink the water. It’s not only in Lake Tahoe, but all over the country. It’s terribly bad for the groundwater. As a result of that, a number of the companies who produce MTBE want to not be held responsible for this because the government told them to manufacture this stuff, therefore why should they be held responsible for the polluting nature of it. And what others say is, “look, you’re the ones that manufactured it and you should have known how bad it was.” So that’s where we are.
ROLL CALL: And Tom DeLay is protecting oil companies?
REID: Well, you’d have to ask him who he’s protecting. I assume it’s the chemical companies and the oil companies.
ROLL CALL: Now, the advance forecast on the energy bill was there were going to be many, many Senate Democratic amendments. What are they going to concern?
REID: I think there will still be some amendments, but they will be less concentrated and there will be fewer of them because of the slimming down of the bill. There will be a lot less than there was.
ROLL CALL: So what will primarily the amendments concern?
REID: I think there will be some amendments that will relate to alternative energy tax credits, there will be some dealing with the environment generally, some people feel this is not an environmentally sensitive bill.
ROLL CALL: But at the end of the day …
REID: The bill will pass.
ROLL CALL: And how long is it going to take?
REID: I think we can do it in one week, one legislative week.
ROLL CALL: If the House leadership blocks the passage of an energy bill this year, what do you think the political consequences will be?
REID: I believe that, just like on the highway bill, if there is anyone that should be a cheerleader for this energy bill, it should be the president. And if he can’t get his leadership in the House to do a bill, I feel sorry for him.
ROLL CALL: And what are the elements of the energy bill that you consider now vital to pass and particularly politically vital?
REID: Well, for Nevada, we are little different than a lot. Our concern is alternative energy: solar, wind, geothermal. Those are real important. And the tax credits have to be the same for sun and geothermal as they are for wind. Wind has tax credits, they are good and we’ve put up a lot of wind energy as a result of it. So that’s my concern on the bill. Other people have differences, ethanol … some people like that, some don’t. But those are the main components in the bill, as far as I’m concerned.
ROLL CALL: Now, does this bill deal with the blackout problem?
REID: Not nearly enough, but it has some tangential effect of course.
ROLL CALL: Why was it not possible to fully deal with the blackout problem? We had a big Northeastern blackout and people were looking to Congress to solve that problem.
REID: Well, there are a number of reasons. One is it costs a lot of money to do a better job than what we have with our power grid and people aren’t willing … to spend the money.
ROLL CALL: That is to say who, Republicans?
ROLL CALL: OK, let me ask you some other questions. What does the United States have to do to help other countries beef up security at their airports? So you don’t have flights being canceled as they have been.
REID: Well, Mort, I believe that those countries that are concerned about flying people to America … I don’t think we need to tell them to beef up their security, they need to beef up their own. Because if they want the commerce with us, they’re going to have to make sure the people are safe on the airplane.
ROLL CALL: How satisfied are you with the security of energy installations like pipelines and nuclear facilities in this country?
REID: I’m not at all satisfied with that. You know, we’ve had a number of opportunities to do much more. … We need to do a lot more to beef up our port security, our nuclear security facilities and energy generally. We haven’t done that. We’ve tried in three separate bills to get the president to go along with this, and he’s refused.