WASHINGTON — Sen. Harry Reid’s focus is clear as he prepares for his final year in office. The 76-year-old Nevadan plans to use his leadership position in the Senate to drive a national agenda that he believes will help the middle class, get more Democrats elected and benefit his home state.
Reid announced in March that he would not run for re-election in 2016, signaling an end to a remarkable six-decade career in public office that took him from a back-bencher in the Nevada Legislature to the leader of the Democratic Caucus in the U.S. Senate, a position he has held since 2004. During his 11 years as either majority or minority leader, Reid has had enormous influence in shaping congressional action and inaction — and that will remain true in his final year.
Although Democrats will be in the minority in 2016, Reid has proved adept in a narrowly divided Senate to block many Republican initiatives and force compromise on must-pass legislation. He is also allowed daily floor times in the Senate where he speaks his — and the Democrats’ — mind on issues often aimed at the upcoming Senate and presidential elections. Reid hopes that Democrats will keep the presidency and regain the Senate majority for 2017.
Reid sat down with Las Vegas Review-Journal reporters in his office off the Senate floor to discuss the new year, just as Congress was getting ready to adjourn for 2015.
Minimum wage, student loans
“I hope that we can do something for the middle class — raise the minimum wage and do something about the fact that my daughters, my granddaughters, should be able to get paid the same amount as a man that does the same work,” Reid said. “We have a tremendous problem out there with the debt of college students and their parents. We should relieve that somewhat.”
Many Democrats are campaigning for the federal minimum wage to be increased to $15 an hour, saying that more and more adults depend on minimum-wage jobs for their livelihood — requiring them to take on several jobs to stay above poverty. Democrats have also pushed for pay equity, citing statistics that women earn significantly less than men who hold similar jobs. They also want to lower interest rates on federal student loans, which are set by statute at a level higher than what the marketplace would demand.
The senator sees these issues, which are national in scope, as important for Nevada, too. Similarly, he sees the increase in federal spending that Democrats secured in an end-of-year omnibus appropriations bill as benefiting his home state. Additional agency funding gives the state an opportunity to seek more federal assistance. Reid said he plans to fight for Nevada’s fair share — that probably means contacting agency heads to remind them of how those newly acquired dollars arrived in their coffers.
Reid pointed to an example of new funding that he expects Las Vegas might try to tap.
The year-end spending bill gives the U.S. Treasury authority to transfer up to $2 billion more to a fund used to combat neighborhood blight. Although the measure was pushed largely by Michigan lawmakers seeking additional help for the economically ailing Detroit, Reid said Las Vegas could use it to clear vacant homes and buildings that need razing. The city’s housing market was particularly hard-hit during the subprime mortgage crisis earlier this decade.
“We need to tear some of those places down,” Reid said. “That’s not cheap. So what we did in the bill saves government money and allows places like Detroit and Las Vegas to tear down some of those buildings.”
Under the bill, the Treasury Department has until the end of 2017 to transfer unused money from the Home Affordable Modification Program to shore up the Hardest Hit Fund, which helps communities to get rid of blighted buildings.
Yucca Mountain, public lands
Reid also pointed to the omnibus for what it did not include — additional funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository project — as a win for Nevada. Reid has opposed burying spent nuclear fuel deep in the mountain 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
“Notice there is nothing in these bills for Yucca Mountain,” Reid said with a chuckle.
President Barack Obama shelved the project in 2010, but supporters in Congress have tried to make funding available to potentially revive the project. Reid is adamant that the project will remain dead long past his Senate tenure. The Obama administration is moving toward a different solution to long-term storage of nuclear waste as it seeks to develop a siting process reliant on local and state support.
Reid has introduced a handful of Nevada-centric bills — most looking to preserve public lands. The bills aren’t likely to become law — few do given the modern-day gridlock in Congress — but that doesn’t mean they will go unanswered. Reid has shown in the past that he can secure action on his proposals by inserting them into must-pass legislation or turning to the administration for help.
He pointed to preserving Gold Butte as a potential beneficiary of White House intervention and noted that Democrats had succeeded this year in stymieing Republican attempts to limit Obama’s ability to name new federal preserves.
“As far as the president doing anything administratively, the only place he might do something is Gold Butte,” Reid said. “That is something I’m sure he is looking at.”
The environmentally sensitive Southern Nevada region has become more vulnerable to intruders and vandals since the Bureau of Land Management largely withdrew from Gold Butte after armed confrontation with supporters of rancher Cliven Bundy.
Friends of Gold Butte have documented disturbances to the desert landscape. Off-road vehicle tracks now mar an area adjacent to one of the area’s signature petroglyph panels, the group said.
The organization said the evidence of lawlessness underscores a need for the federal government to step in and increase protections for the scenic region, 350,000 acres between Lake Mead and the Arizona border that has been called Nevada’s piece of the Grand Canyon.
“That is a beautiful area,” Reid said. “I’ve been there, and it is stunning. It shouldn’t be ruined by people who desecrate those old Indian writings.”
Reid said he will continue to look for ways to boost tourism — the mainstay of Nevada’s economy.
“Let’s understand the future of Nevada, as in the past, is tourism. And, so one of the things we need to focus on is what we can do to help,” Reid said.
He would like to find more funding for transportation projects. Nevada could use more help to improve its highways and airports, he said, noting that Las Vegas had 4 million visitors in November alone.
“We need to do more. We have a $2 trillion backlog of infrastructure projects,” Reid said. “There are 64,000 structurally deficient bridges in America, and the problems with the highways are severe.”
But to do that, Reid said there needs to be a steady revenue stream to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent. Some Democrats support a small increase in the federal fuel tax, which hasn’t been raised in decades. The increase, he said, would be a good investment given the number of jobs that are created from transportation construction projects.
“That’s certainly one way to do it, and there are other new ideas they’ve come up with,” he said.
Reid would consider revisiting the recently approved highway bill but acknowledged that is unlikely to occur in his final year in office.
“We have a highway bill now, which I guess people will use as an excuse not to do more,” he said. “Which is unfortunate.”
Visa waivers, online poker
Reid does believe that lawmakers will consider revisiting recently adopted changes to the visa waiver program that allows visa-free travel from 38 countries. The legislation adopted after the Paris terrorism attacks has posed some unintended consequences, he said. It could block travel for some people with dual citizenship including the father of tennis star Andre Agassi, a Las Vegas resident. Agassi’s father was born in Iran.
“There are a couple of problems with it,” Reid said. “The Republicans pushed it too hard and too fast.”
Reid is also keeping an eye on gaming and still favors allowing online poker. There was “a chance” in the omnibus bill to allow Internet poker under federal Wire Act but, but, Reid said, “it didn’t work out.”
The Justice Department has maintained that all forms of Internet gambling, including sports wagering, casino games and card games, are illegal under the federal law.
“I’ve said publicly I think the attorney general made a mistake,” Reid said. He would like to see Internet poker legalized but is doubtful that Congress will agree in the near term.
“It’d be nice, but I don’t see it happening tomorrow,” he said.
Reid plans to continue serving as he has in the past. He will speak on the Senate floor as the Democratic leader. He will raise money to elect more Democrats to the Senate, and he will support the Democratic nominee for president. He hasn’t endorsed a Democrat yet, deciding to wait until after the Nevada caucuses to weigh in.
Reid said he also wants to restore the appropriations process in Congress. In recent years, the House and Senate have failed to pass appropriations bills on time — leading to stopgap spending bills, government shutdowns or end-of-year omnibus bills crafted by legislative leaders with most members cut out of the process.
“What I want to do is work with everybody to try and re-establish the appropriations process,” he said. “House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and I had a conversation about that goal.”
Contact Peter Urban at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter: @PUrbanDC