Politics & Policy

Who’s the Boss?

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Win McNamee/Getty)
Harry Reid is hell-bent on proving he still runs the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) is not talking like a man who was humbled to be on the wrong side of a landslide in the most recent midterms.

“I support this legislation, but we’re not going to have an abortion provision in the bill,” Reid told reporters last week, demanding that Republicans strip the Hyde Amendment language — a provision barring taxpayer funding of abortions that has been uncontroversial for decades — from a human-trafficking bill that passed unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year. Once they do that, “then we’re happy to debate all the amendments they want . . . including Vitter’s stupid amendment,” Reid said, in reference to a rider proposed by Senator David Vitter (R., La.) that would end birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants.

The fight over the human-trafficking bill demonstrates how much power Reid wields in the Senate, despite the loss of his majority in November. When the minority leader was still at home, recovering from injuries suffered in a bad fall, Republicans voted on 41 amendments to the Keystone XL pipeline bill. When he returned to work, he united his troops around a strategy of filibustering to prevent votes on bills they don’t like. As a tactic, this worked so well in the fight over funding the Department of Homeland Security that they’re trying it again with the once-obscure, bipartisan human-trafficking bill.

It amounts to an experiment in obstruction with far-reaching policy and procedural significance: Can Harry Reid force Republicans to back down on the Hyde Amendment, setting a precedent that one of the top legislative victories for pro-life activists is too controversial to put into routine bills? If the minority leader can do that, then who controls the Senate, really?

Reid intends to find out. He is requiring senior members of his leadership team to say that they didn’t understand the legislation that they’d previously supported in committee.

“My staff did review it, and this is one of those obscure section references that doesn’t, as I understand it, even include the words ‘Hyde Amendment’ or ‘abortion,’” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) told reporters Tuesday when he and Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) were asked if they had read the bill.

“A memo was sent to senators saying ‘there are seven changes from the old bill’; the Hyde change was not listed,” Schumer said.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, refused to answer when NR more than once asked if he’d read the bill before voting for it in committee.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) proposed what should have been a simple solution when he said that Democrats could offer an amendment to the bill that would strip out the Hyde Amendment language. Reid, knowing that a majority of senators support the language, blocked it from coming up for a vote, just as he used to forbid amendments when he ran the Senate.

“No one’s ever done what Harry Reid did in the last couple years, shutting down the Senate — disallowing legislation, forbidding amendments — no one’s ever done that before,” one GOP senator says. “It would be politically disastrous for them if Republicans demonstrate that we’re as productive and as competent as we want to be. . . . So this is all about, on every bill, every time, try everything to prevent this thing from moving.”

Republicans believe that Reid is in an untenable position. “To take this legislation hostage that would provide a means of rescue, healing, and return to a productive life for 100,000 children who are sex trafficked in America is just as reprehensible as I can imagine,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R., Texas) told reporters Tuesday.

“The typical victim of human trafficking is aged between 12 and 14,” Senator John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) added.

That fact makes Reid’s decision to pick a fight look even more like a symbolic move than a policy disagreement, given that the Hyde Amendment language contains exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. By definition, a 12-year-old girl who is pregnant was a victim of statutory rape and is therefore unaffected by the Hyde Amendment.

For now, McConnell is applying extra pressure on Democrats by refusing to hold a vote on U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch’s nomination to succeed Attorney General Eric Holder. “We have to finish the human-trafficking bill,” McConnell said Sunday on CNN. “The Loretta Lynch nomination comes next.” In theory, that means that Lynch will never be confirmed if Democrats persist in filibustering the human-trafficking bill.

That’s a card McConnell hoped he’d never have to play — he refused to do so in February when Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) called for Republicans to thwart Lynch’s confirmation because of her support for President Obama’s executive-amnesty orders — given GOP concerns that Democrats would smear them with a racism charge.

“People are very nervous about the politics of not having a vote on the first black woman attorney general,” says the GOP senator.

The Congressional Black Caucus is providing air support for Senate Democrats by accusing Republicans of racist motivations in holding up Lynch’s vote. “I think race certainly can be considered a major factor,” CBC chairman G. K. Butterfield (D., N.C.) told activists on a Tuesday-morning phone call discussing the delay in voting to confirm Lynch.

Those are hits that McConnell is willing to take now, perhaps because of the context. “If the Democrats, as a minority in the Senate, can not only tell the majority what bills they can bring up [but] whether or not they can or can’t have amendments . . . it’s going to be like this on every single issue,” a GOP Senate aide told NR in February.

That was during the executive-amnesty fight, which Reid won by keeping his caucus united in a filibuster of the House-passed DHS funding bill. Ultimately, in order to keep DHS funding from lapsing, the House passed a new bill that did not contain that ban on implementing President Obama’s executive-amnesty orders. Democrats don’t have perfect unity this time around, but Reid is still trying to force Senate Republicans to rewrite legislation that he doesn’t have the votes to amend on the floor. If Republicans relent, then Reid will have the power to dominate the Senate any time he has 40 Democratic votes.

 “I think it’s the kind of thing [where] we could look back, maybe a year from now, and say this was a turning point,” another GOP aide says.

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.

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