Democrat Tammy Baldwin is running for the Senate in Wisconsin, but a TV ad criticizing her opens with a smiling House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on the screen. Democrat Joe Donnelly is his party’s Senate candidate in Indiana. An ad targeting him quotes Donnelly as saying “he’s not worried about Nancy Pelosi’s politics being tied to his campaign.” But he should be. “You can run for the Senate, but you can’t run from your record,” the ad says. In this case, it’s his record of having voted twice for Pelosi as House speaker.
Shelley Berkley of Nevada is also a Democrat running for the Senate this year. A television ad zinging her asks this question: “Whose corner is Shelley Berkley in? She sided with Nancy Pelosi to ram through government-mandated health care, which hurt small businesses.”
The tactic of connecting House Democrats to Pelosi was a staple of Republican campaigns in the 2010 GOP landslide. Now, with Baldwin, Donnelly, and Berkley—House members all—seeking Senate seats, Pelosi is still being invoked. “She’s the gift that keeps on giving,” a Republican strategist says.
But what about Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader with the egregious record of having blocked the Senate from drafting a budget for the past three years (1,213 days as of last week)? So long as Democrats hold the Senate, and perhaps even if they lose control, Democrats elected in November are likely to be called upon to vote for Reid as their leader. Yet he’s not an issue, nor was he in earlier elections.
That Pelosi is toxic and Reid is not—this is one of the peculiarities of politics. They’re both aggressively partisan, stridently liberal, heavy-handed, unpopular nationally, and given to committing gaffes. Yet Republicans have exploited Pelosi in campaigns with great success, while ignoring Reid.
There are noteworthy reasons for this. In focus groups conducted by Republicans, swing voters respond negatively to any mention of Pelosi. It’s clear she’s a drag on Democrats. But when Reid is raised, the reaction is weak.
“Swing voters don’t know who he is,” a Republican operative says. “He does not move people. But swing voters just can’t stand her.”
In truth, Reid is barely a national figure at all. “He’s not as high profile as Pelosi or as omnipresent,” says Karl Rove, the Republican strategist. And he doesn’t “spend a lot of time in states that aren’t dark blue,” a GOP aide says.
Nor do the mainstream media pay much attention to Reid. His gaffes get fleeting coverage, most recently his claim of a secret source who told him that Mitt Romney hadn’t paid any federal income taxes for 10 years.
But Reid’s abuses as Senate leader are accepted by the press as a given, and thus barely mentioned. He’s lucky to be a Democrat. A Republican majority leader would face harsh treatment by the press if he refused to allow the Senate to produce a federal budget, as required by law. With Reid, the federal government has had to limp along with a series of omnibus bills and stopgap spending measures known as continuing resolutions.
Reid has taken this unprecedented step to protect Senate Democrats from being attacked over dicey provisions in a Democratic budget. When Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad began developing a budget this year, Reid forced him to stop.
Democratic officials appear uncomfortable when asked about Reid’s action. They’ve tried to blame Republican opposition, even though Democrats control the Senate, 53-47.
“You can’t pass a budget in the Senate of the United States without 60 votes,” Jacob Lew, the White House chief of staff, insisted in a TV interview. “Unless Republicans are willing to work with Democrats in the Senate, Harry Reid is not going to be able to get a budget passed.”
This isn’t true. It takes only a simple majority of votes cast—51 if the full Senate is present—to pass a budget. Filibusters, by which 41 senators can block a measure, are not permitted on budget votes.
David Axelrod, President Obama’s political strategist, acknowledged the simple-majority requirement in an interview with Bret Baier of Fox News—but still blamed Republicans. “We’ve got deep divisions in the Congress between the House and the Senate,” Axelrod said. “That’s complicated our ability to get things done.” He didn’t explain how House Republicans could prevent Senate Democrats from passing a budget.
Nor could White House press secretary Jay Carney. Instead, he noted that Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, and two other House Republicans on the Simpson-Bowles commission had voted against its budget recommendation. “The only way in modern-day Washington to achieve a significant budget compromise is when both parties are willing to work together,” he told Fox News.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who heads the Democratic National Committee, declared “it’s simply not true” that Reid had refused to send a Senate budget to the floor for a vote.
Barring a budget is but one of Reid’s breaches of normal Senate practice. He has cut back substantially on debate, once regarded as the greatest virtue of the Senate, and has done so with impunity. Media coverage has been almost nonexistent.
Reid has exploited a practice called “filling the tree” to limit sharply the number of Republican amendments to legislation, and thus curtail debate and floor votes. He’s triggered the rarely used procedure called the “nuclear option” to change Senate rules by a simple majority, further curbing Republican amendments on issues Democrats want to avoid. And he’s refused to bring up the defense authorization bill and appropriations bills.
Republican senators have complained in vain. “Do my colleagues not feel a responsibility to tell the American people what their financial plan for the future of America is?” Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the budget committee, asked on the Senate floor recently.
On August 2, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Reid “has set a historic pace for blocking amendments. No amendments in committee, no amendments on the floor, take it or leave it. That’s the story of the Senate under the current leadership.”
Reid is still basking in his reelection in Nevada in 2010. His Republican opponent was pathetically inept. But the press congratulated Reid for running a brilliant campaign. Esquire magazine devoted 5,000 words to an adoring article on Reid. It was written by the coauthor of Reid’s 2008 book, The Good Fight.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.