Sen. Harry M. Reid (Nev.), a miner's son who grew up in a home with no indoor toilet, took command of Senate Democrats yesterday and promised to be a leader who would seek compromise and consensus with Republicans but also battle them when necessary.
"I always would rather dance than fight, but I know how to fight," he said after emerging from a closed meeting of Democrats that elected him minority leader by acclamation.
As Congress reconvened after its election recess, closed-door House-Senate negotiations intensified on legislation to revamp the U.S. intelligence system and a huge spending bill funding foreign aid and most domestic government agencies in fiscal 2005.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), picked by Democrats to be minority whip, the No. 2 post, held out a slim hope that the intelligence legislation could be completed before final adjournment of the 108th Congress. "There's a chance, but we will need the help of the White House," he said.
But Durbin acknowledged that it would still be necessary to persuade two House negotiators, Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), to accept the Senate version of the legislation.
The catchall spending bill, which could total as much as $385 billion, was still facing hurdles, but in the aftermath of the election, lawmakers in both parties seemed eager to reach an agreement and close the books on the business of this Congress.
GOP leaders expressed hope that the bill, combining all nine of the unfinished annual appropriations bills, could be wrapped up by Friday or Saturday. "I don't see anything that is going to stop us in our tracks," said John Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee.
Midwestern and eastern dairy farmers were still pushing for a provision that would extend the federal dairy program beyond next September. President Bush called for the extension while on campaign swings in Wisconsin. But the provision faces strong opposition from western lawmakers representing larger-scale dairy interests for whom federal payments are capped under the program.
The Senate is expected to take up legislation today or tomorrow authorizing an increase of $800 billion to $900 billion in the $7.4 trillion national debt. Democrats plan to use the occasion to brand GOP fiscal policies, such as tax cuts, as irresponsible.
In addition to picking Reid and Durbin for the top leadership posts, Democrats chose Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), a first-term senator who has worked extensively on health and Medicare issues, as Democratic Conference secretary. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), a prodigious fundraiser, was selected to head the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the party's political arm.
Not voting was outgoing Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who lost his bid for a fourth Senate term to Republican John Thune.
Reid, in his remarks, struck a conciliatory note, saying he was "someone that believes that legislation is the art of compromise."
"I believe that consensus-building is one of my responsibilities, and I'm going to do everything I can to build as much consensus and as many compromises as possible," he said.
Reid said the president called him the day after the Nov. 2 election "and said he wanted to be a uniter. Didn't work too well the first four years, we hope it works the second four years, because we want to work together."
But he also made clear he would stand up for core Democratic principles, such as improved health care, more spending on public education and an increase in the minimum wage.
Meanwhile, a group of "centrist" Democrats and Republicans, led by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), met to plot ways to push a moderate agenda on fiscal policy, Social Security reform and aid to education.