Senate Majority Leader-elect Harry Reid said Tuesday he’s doing away with the "do-nothing Congress" that Democrats campaigned against and plans to keep senators working long hours — focusing first on ethics, the minimum wage and stem cell research.
The Nevada Democrat said he would tackle those priorities after cleaning up the "financial mess" the outgoing Republican Congress is leaving behind, a reference to nine long-overdue spending bills covering 13 Cabinet departments for the budget year that began Oct. 1.
"They’re just leaving town, it appears," Reid said during an interview with The Associated Press in his Capitol office. "And so we’re going to have to find a way to fund the government for the next year."
The must-pass legislation totals more than $460 billion and could divert time from other items on the Democratic agenda. "It’s certainly not going to help it," Reid said.
He is wrapping up his final days as Senate minority leader. He will assume control of the Senate’s agenda on Jan. 4, when the next Congress convenes with 10 new senators, at least 52 new House members and Democrats holding majorities in both houses for the first time since 1994.
"We’re going to put in some hours here that haven’t been put in in a long time," Reid said. That means "being here more days in the week, and we start off this year with seven weeks without a break. That hasn’t been done in many, many years here."
Reid said he hopes President Bush is willing to work with Democratic congressional leaders, but he added that the early signs have not been encouraging. He said the White House has not reached out to him since his meeting with Bush in the Oval Office on Nov. 10.
"He said when I met with him after the election he wanted to work together, and I told him, `Mr. President, you said that two years ago and we haven’t gotten anything done,’" Reid said.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said lawmakers have been out of town for most of the time since the Nov. 10 meeting and the president has been traveling abroad. He said Bush "has been very forthright in his interest in having a bipartisan dialogue on the Hill. That wasn’t just a gesture in the days after the election — that was an authentic, sincere effort."
Reid said he hoped Bush would use his State of the Union address before Congress early next year to lay out plans for health care, retirement security, decreasing dependence on foreign oil, reducing government deficits and, most importantly, Iraq.
He said the Senate will conduct hearings to investigate problems in Iraq but Democrats have no immediate plans to cut spending on the war.
"Now he’s the commander in chief, and we’re not going to do anything to limit funding or cut off funds, even though there are some on the outside who suggest that," Reid said. "I think we want to make sure that the troops have everything that they need."
With only a two-seat majority and a Republican president with veto power, Reid’s Democrats will have an incentive to work with political opponents to get their priorities into the law books.
Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, whom Republicans voted to be their minority leader in the new year, said while he and Reid are not going to agree on every item, they agree on the need for bipartisan achievements on special spending bills and other matters.
"Earmark transparency is a good start, but I would also like to see us find common ground on Social Security, homeland security, extending tax relief and other major issues that we can’t just kick down the road," McConnell told the AP.
Bush used the only veto of his presidency so far to reject a bill passed by Congress last year that would have expanded embryonic stem cell research through government funding.
Supporters of such research say it could lead to treatments and cures for a wide variety of ailments, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases as well as spinal cord injuries. Bush and abortion foes, however, have opposed expanding embryonic stem cell research because the embryos die in the process of harvesting the stem cells from them.
Fratto said Bush gave the matter deep thought and consulted with researchers and religious leaders on the moral and ethical implications of his position. Reid said he hoped the president "will relent and see the light."
In the meantime, Reid said the Senate is "not even close" to having the two-thirds vote necessary to override Bush’s veto but he hopes some Republicans will join the Democrats after the GOP’s election losses this month.
He pointed to Missouri, where the issue helped pro-stem cell candidate Claire McCaskill defeat incumbent Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who said embryonic stem cell research destroys human life at its earliest stages.
The midterm election came on the heels of several ethical scandals involving lawmakers, and Reid said reform is needed. He said "the first thing we do" will be to require lawmakers to put their names on "earmarks" — spending items added to bills that often help a specific company or project in their districts. Bush supports such transparency, Fratto said.
Citizens Against Government Waste, a taxpayer watchdog group, said there were 9,963 such projects in the spending bills for the 2006 budget year, costing $29 billion.
The third item at the top of Reid’s agenda is increasing the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour. It’s also one of several measures that Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi has promised to bring to the House floor in the first 100 hours that chamber is in session. Fratto said Bush is willing to support an increase in the minimum wage, although he doesn’t want to publicly debate the amount and wants to make sure it won’t hurt small businesses.