WASHINGTON – Newly elected Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid prodded President Bush and Republicans on Tuesday to join him in working across party lines over the next two years and said, "I would always rather dance than fight."
"But I know how to fight," the 64-year-old Nevadan added in his first appearance as leader of a Democratic minority that was reduced to 44 seats in the Nov. 2 elections, fewest in seven decades.
Chosen without opposition to replace Sen. Tom Daschle (search) as party leader, Reid also warned Republicans not to "mess with the rules" as they try to overcome opposition to Bush's most controversial nominees for the federal courts.
While Democrats ushered in a new leadership era, House Republicans stood pat with their own team after elections that enlarged their majority.
Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois won support from the GOP rank and file for a fourth consecutive term as speaker and pledged a "reform Congress" when lawmakers convene in January.
"We will reform the legal system to stop lawsuit abuse. ... We will reform Social Security without cutting benefits and raising taxes on senior citizens, and we will work to reform the tax code to make it more simple and more fair," said Hastert, who has a close relationship with Bush.
Daschle was defeated in a bid for re-election in South Dakota two weeks ago, and Reid's ascension capped a remarkable rise for a native of tiny Searchlight, Nev., born into poor circumstances.
"If I can make it in America, anyone can," he told reporters, adding he hopes to use his tenure to make sure that others have "the same opportunities that Harry Reid had."
Later, in an interview in his office in the Capitol, Reid said he intends to defer to Daschle while Congress completes its current postelection session.
At the same time, he already has begun to exercise his new power inside the party and the Senate.
He said he hopes Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack will seek chairmanship of the Democratic party, for example, and that Democrats will work harder to appeal to rural voters in states like his own.
Reid said Bush's pick for second-term secretary of state, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, "should be confirmed fairly easily," barring the unexpected.
On another of Bush's high-profile Cabinet appointments, Reid said Senate Democrats will seek certain memos that Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales wrote as White House legal counsel. Gonzales drew criticism from human rights groups after the terror attacks in 2001 when he wrote a memo in which Bush claimed the right to waive anti-torture law and international treaties that provide protections to prisoners of war.
Reid has spent the past six years as Daschle's second-in-command and told reporters he is not an "untested vessel."
He takes over as Democrats struggle to adjust to the Nov. 2 elections in which Republicans held the White House and tightened their grip in both houses of Congress.
Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who delivered one of the nominating speeches on Reid's behalf in the private caucus, told reporters he had said the Nevada lawmaker "will lead this caucus into a new era and oppose where necessary, compromise where possible and avoid the obstructionist label."
Reid's speaking style often includes criticism wrapped in the language of compromise, and his remarks about Bush and Senate Republicans fit the mold.
"We start this new Congress ... with the opportunities to do good things. We are going to try and work with the president," Reid said.
"He said four years ago he wanted to be a uniter. ... That didn't work too well the first four years. We hope it works the second four years, because we want to work together."
Reid's comment about judicial nominations alluded to pressure by some GOP conservatives for a change in Senate procedures that would strip Democrats of their ability to filibuster appointments. The filibuster is an unlimited extension of debate to kill a proposal and requires 60 votes to stop.
Democrats have blocked votes on 10 of Bush's nominees over the past four years while confirming 203, which Reid said represents good odds for the president. A change would be shortsighted, Reid said, since Republicans may one day find themselves in the minority and eager to block appointments by a Democratic president.
He conceded, however, there was little Democrats could do to prevent Republicans from acting if they choose to.
Apart from Reid, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois was elected second-ranking party leader.