Harry Reid Wants 1989’s Mitch McConnell Back

In rare joint testimony, the Senate leaders offered disparate takes on campaign spending, an issue they used to agree on.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (L) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speak during a ceremony in the Capitol Visitor Center July 18, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
June 3, 2014, 8:40 a.m.

The two lead­ers of the Sen­ate made a rare joint ap­pear­ance Tues­day morn­ing be­fore the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee. Harry Re­id and Mitch Mc­Con­nell picked up an ar­gu­ment on cam­paign fin­ance re­form more than 35 years in the mak­ing.

The Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an law­makers have taken strong elec­tion-year stands on op­pos­ite sides of the cam­paign fin­ance re­form ar­gu­ment. Re­id has of­ten taken to the Sen­ate floor de­cry­ing the in­flu­ence of Re­pub­lic­an bil­lion­aires in cam­paigns, point­ing al­most daily to the Koch broth­ers as ar­chi­tects of a flawed polit­ic­al pro­cess and re­fer­ring to Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates as “Koch ad­dicts.” Mean­while, Mc­Con­nell, who is up for reelec­tion in Novem­ber, took a high-pro­file side in the re­cent Su­preme Court case Mc­Cutcheon v. Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion, writ­ing an amicus brief ar­guing in fa­vor of fur­ther re­du­cing lim­its on cam­paign spend­ing.

Giv­en their dis­par­ate views, it’s hard to ima­gine that Re­id and Mc­Con­nell ever found an area of agree­ment in the battle over cam­paign fin­ance reg­u­la­tions. But, as Re­id noted in his testi­mony Tues­day morn­ing, Mc­Con­nell him­self sponsored a 1989 bill that would have severely reg­u­lated out­side spend­ing and re­quired massive dis­clos­ure of in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures by out­side groups — two ideas that he vehe­mently op­posed in re­cent years. Re­id co­sponsored that bill, which failed to even get a vote in the Sen­ate at the time.

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Thirty-five years later, Mc­Con­nell and Re­id found them­selves seated be­fore the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee to ar­gue on op­pos­ite ends of a new cam­paign fin­ance re­form battle. At is­sue is a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment sponsored by Sens. Tom Ud­all, D-N.M., and Mi­chael Ben­net, D-Colo., which would even fur­ther re­strict cam­paign fin­ance reg­u­la­tions by al­low­ing Con­gress to al­ter all rules re­lated to fed­er­al elec­tion laws and the states to handle down-bal­lot reg­u­la­tions. The bill is headed nowhere, even in the Sen­ate, and Mc­Con­nell spec­u­lated in his testi­mony Tues­day that hold­ing hear­ings on the le­gis­la­tion is merely a “polit­ic­al ex­er­cise.”

“The goal here is to stir up one party’s polit­ic­al base so they’ll show up in Novem­ber and it’s to do it by com­plain­ing loudly about cer­tain Amer­ic­ans ex­er­cising their free speech and as­so­ci­ation­al rights, while be­ing per­fectly happy that oth­er Amer­ic­ans — those who agree with the spon­sors of this amend­ment — are do­ing the same thing,” Mc­Con­nell said, im­pli­citly ref­er­en­cing Re­id’s re­peated at­tacks on the Koch broth­ers.

But the state­ments by Re­id and Mc­Con­nell on Tues­day high­light a grow­ing dis­par­ity between the two lead­ers on cam­paign fin­ance re­form, as well as the sig­ni­fic­ance of the is­sue head­ing in­to 2014.

Side-by-side testi­mony from both Sen­ate lead­ers is highly un­usu­al, and Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., spec­u­lated that it was a first in the his­tory of the com­mit­tee. But, the sev­en-term sen­at­or joked, “I can only speak for 40 years of this com­mit­tee’s his­tory.”

In an­oth­er sign of the ap­pear­ance’s rar­ity, Re­id con­tinu­ally re­ferred to Leahy as “Mr. Pres­id­ent,” the typ­ic­al monik­er for the presid­ing of­ficer of the Sen­ate, used in speeches on the cham­ber floor. “I ap­pre­ci­ate the sobri­quet of ‘Mr. Pres­id­ent,’ ” Leahy teased Re­id after his testi­mony. ‘Chair­man’ is fine.”

In his testi­mony, Re­id re­peatedly ap­pealed to a 47-year-old ver­sion of Mc­Con­nell, hop­ing to re­mind the lead­er of his views in 1989. “Sen­at­or Mc­Con­nell had the right idea then. And I am hope­ful that we can find a way to re­kindle those noble prin­ciples in him again,” Re­id said. “I find it hard to fathom that my Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues would want to de­fend the status quo. Is there any mem­ber of this com­mit­tee who really be­lieves the status quo is work­ing?”

Re­id also told per­son­al stor­ies, fo­cus­ing largely on his 2010 race which took place just months after the Su­preme Court’s de­cision in the Cit­izens United case. Re­id struggled through that race against tea-party can­did­ate Shar­ron Angle, ul­ti­mately com­ing out 5 points ahead, but only after both sides spent more than $50 mil­lion. “Nobody knows where the money came from and the people in Nevada were sub­jec­ted to false and mis­lead­ing ads, not know­ing any­thing about these shad­ow groups,” Re­id said.

Mc­Con­nell, who is fa­cing his first real reelec­tion chal­lenge in more than a dec­ade, dis­missed Re­id’s ar­gu­ments about the Koch broth­ers and “what I may have said over a quarter of a cen­tury ago.”

He went on to re­ject Re­id’s ar­gu­ments as those from a politi­cian who is tak­ing elec­tion-year cri­ti­cisms too per­son­ally — al­though he did not men­tion Re­id by name. “I un­der­stand that no politi­cian likes to be cri­ti­cized — and some of us are cri­ti­cized more of­ten than the rest of us,” Mc­Con­nell said. “But the re­course to be­ing cri­ti­cized is not to shut up your fel­low cit­izens, which be­lieve me, this is de­signed to do.”

Mc­Con­nell’s view on cam­paign fin­ance, like the Su­preme Court’s, has shif­ted over the years. As he has gained more power and prom­in­ence in Con­gress, the Re­pub­lic­an law­maker has in­creas­ingly turned away from his pre­vi­ous in­terest in re­stric­tions on cam­paign fin­ance, Pub­lic Cam­paign Watch­dog’s Adam Smith, who mon­it­ors cam­paign fin­ance is­sues, told Na­tion­al Journ­al. That change so­lid­i­fied when Mc­Con­nell be­came chair­man of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee in 1998 and was charged with rais­ing money to elect Re­pub­lic­ans to the Sen­ate. “He sees it as a way for Re­pub­lic­ans to main­tain power.”¦ Re­pub­lic­ans are win­ning un­der that sys­tem right now,” Smith said.

That ideo­lo­gic­al shift was on full dis­play Tues­day, as Mc­Con­nell re­peatedly com­pared ar­gu­ments for lim­it­ing the fund­ing of polit­ic­al cam­paigns to those for lim­it­ing an in­di­vidu­al’s First Amend­ment rights.

But his largest con­cern, the Sen­ate minor­ity lead­er said, is the par­tic­u­lar scope of Ud­all’s and Ben­net’s bill, which would put the power over elec­tion laws in­to the hands of those who are already favored by the cur­rent sys­tem: long­time in­cum­bents like him­self. “If in­cum­bent politi­cians were in charge of polit­ic­al speech, a ma­jor­ity could design the rules to be­ne­fit it­self and di­min­ish its op­pon­ents. And when roles re­versed, you could ex­pect a new ma­jor­ity to try to dis­ad­vant­age the oth­er half of the coun­try. And on and on it would go,” he ar­gued.

Both Mc­Con­nell and Re­id ex­ited as soon as they fin­ished their state­ments. Re­id, who went first, however, in­dic­ated that his exit should not be taken as a sign that he wasn’t in­ter­ested in listen­ing to his long­time Re­pub­lic­an coun­ter­part. “I wanted to make sure that my leav­ing doesn’t take any­thing away at all from my friend­ship with Mitch Mc­Con­nell,” Re­id said. “He won’t be up­set when I leave.” 

“No. No prob­lem,” Mc­Con­nell re­spon­ded, draw­ing laughter from the crowded hear­ing room.

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