Reid on Kochs, politics and civility

America won’t see single-payer health care in our lifetimes, we should raise the minimum wage and a President Hillary Clinton might face less opposition than has Barack Obama, according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Not only that, but Reid — known for his partisan broadsides and frequent attacks on Republican lawmakers he accuses of obstruction — acknowledged that part of his job is to find ways for warring political parties to compromise.

Those were among the remarks made by Reid at the Review-Journal’s monthly Hashtags & Headlines, where Reid made news mostly for calling armed protesters who have flocked to the Cliven Bundy ranch in rural Clark County “domestic terrorists.” But in a wide-ranging discussion with me that followed a lengthy Reid filibuster, the senator touched on a wide variety of topics.

Some highlights:

• Reminded of an interview on VegasPBS in August — in which he said America would “yes, absolutely yes” have a single-payer health-care system someday — Reid said it won’t happen anytime soon. “Probably not in our lifetimes, buddy,” Reid told me when I asked about the timeline. He said the idea was discussed when debate began on the president’s Affordable Care Act, “but it never really got off the ground.”

• In response to the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision of 2010, Reid called for a renewed push to pass the DISCLOSE Act, a law that would have forced all political organizations to report their donors. When I said the act would simply require reporting of the contributions, but not stop the flood of political money, Reid disagreed, and said it would especially stop those whose donations are shielded by law now.

“The DISCLOSE Act would stop a lot of money,” he said. “Those people that go with the secret money, they do it because they don’t want anybody to know they’re giving the money.”

Ironically enough, that answer seems to admit one of the primary arguments against full disclosure laws, which is that they would have a chilling effect on free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court, in several decisions, has acknowledged that chilling effect, but said laws such as the DISCLOSE Act impose a lighter burden on the First Amendment than laws that limit political contributions or spending.

• Reid refused to back away from his criticism of the Koch brothers, oil billionaires who have funded a sprawling network of political groups, including Americans for Prosperity and groups focusing on veterans and seniors. “They’re trying to buy America,” Reid said. “I think having America for sale is not good.”

But a New York Times story published last month about the strategy puts a decidedly different spin on it. “Democrats say the strategy of spotlighting the Koch brothers’ activities is politically shrewd,” the story says. “The majority leader [Reid] was particularly struck by a presentation during a recent Senate Democratic retreat, which emphasized that one of the best ways to draw an effective contrast is to pick a villain, one of his aides said. And by scolding the Koch brothers, Mr. Reid is trying to draw them out, both to raise their public profile, and also to help rally the Democratic base. The approach stems, in part, from Democratic-funded research showing that many voters believe the political system is rigged in favor of the super rich.”

After I read that passage, Reid replied simply, “So?”

I pressed: “This is a political strategy, isn’t it, as well as a fundraising strategy? The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has been raising money like gangbusters after you’ve been talking about the Koch brothers and as you said, you’ve given America the villain that they need to identify with as you struggle with your Democrats to overcome the objections to Obamacare and try to remain the majority.”

Again, Reid’s reply: “So?”

(Where have I heard that line used before?)

• Reid discounted objections that maintain raising the minimum wage would cost jobs, as employers hire fewer workers to control costs, or fail to hire workers whose skills aren’t worth the higher wage. “When you have a standard wage, people who want to work, and they work hard, and they spend 40 hours a week working hard, they should be able to not be in poverty,” Reid said. “That’s all that amounts to.”

• Reid — who has attacked the Republicans and defended Democrats and the president from the Senate floor and in public remarks (including at Thursday’s lunch) nonetheless admitted he has a responsibility to to compromise with Republicans. “The answer to your question is yes. One of my roles is to find a way to work together,” Reid said. “I have an obligation, I certainly do, yes, to try to work things out. I’ve done my best.”

• Reid dodged the question when I pressed him about why the Democratic Party in Nevada had failed to field a high-profile candidate for governor to run against incumbent Republican Brian Sandoval. “I am not going to pick on him for the sake of picking on him,” Reid said. “We have to work together for the good of the state of Nevada.”

But where did the infamous candidate-recruitment of the Reid-run Democratic machine break down? “I think the biggest problem is such poor journalism from people like you,” Reid deadpanned.

• Reid said former secretary of state Clinton would face less opposition than President Obama has if she were to be elected to office in 2016, because Republicans are slowly starting to change their strategy, Reid maintained. Despite staunch Republican opposition and obstruction of some key Democratic legislative priorities — most notably comprehensive immigration reform — Republicans have been unable to prevent Obama or Reid from being re-elected.

“Obstruction doesn’t work,” Reid said. “People want people to work together. And the Republicans in Congress don’t represent the Republicans in the country.”

In fact, Speaker John Boehner has occasionally brought legislation to the floor knowing it would pass with a majority of Democrats but a minority of Republicans. If he did that with a Senate-passed version of immigration reform, Reid said, it would pass overwhelmingly, too.

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