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)

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.