WASHINGTON — Frustrated by the "sewer" of modern American political campaigns, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid Wednesday said that he would bring a constitutional amendment to the floor granting Congress the ability to set strict new limits on campaign contributions, warning he will force multiple votes if necessary to pass the measure.
"When I came to Congress, when you got money you had to list who you got it from, what their occupation was, address, and phone numbers if you had it. Then I saw things change. In 1998, [former Sen.] John Ensign and I ran against one another and we spent about $10 million in Nevada," Reid told BuzzFeed during an interview in his Capitol office.
"Neither one of us outspent the other, but most of the money we spent was corporate money because there was a loophole where corporate money could flow through the state party. That was an election that was awful. I won it, but just barely. I felt it was corrupting, all this corporate money," Reid added.
Things had changed for the good, he said, by 2004. "I felt so clean and pure with McCain-Feingold, which had come into being, it was wonderful. We were back where we should have been," he said.
Then the Supreme Court handed down the Citizens United ruling, Reid said, opening the flood gates to hundreds of millions of largely unregulated money to SuperPACs. "It was as if I had jumped into the sewer … it's awful what has happened."
Although a number of Democrats, most notably New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, have talked about passing a constitutional amendment to re-impose campaign finance restrictions, Reid had not been one of them — until now.
"(Former Supreme Court) Justice Stevens gave me the nudge that I needed and that is, 'Let's try and pass a constitutional amendment,'" Reid said. Stevens has recently talked heavily about campaign finance in the press.
"It's been tried before, we should continue to push this and it should become our issue. That really puts the Koch brothers up against it. We believe and I believe that there should be spending limits. We're going to push a constitutional amendment so we can limit spending because what is going on today is awful," Reid vowed, indicating that he'll bring Udall's measure to the Senate floor soon.
"We're going to arrange a vote on it. We're going to do it until we pass it because that's the salvation of our country."
Reid's legendary feisty streak was also on display during the interview, dismissing criticism from both the left and right for his focus on the Koch Brothers, as well as his recent positive comments about casino magnate Sheldon Adeleson.
"The Koch brothers, one of them ran for vice president in 1980 wanting to do away with Social Security, taxes, no unemployment insurance, I mean weird stuff. No minimum wage. That in 1980 was kind of on the fringes, now it's basically what the Republican Party is," Reid complained.
On Adelson, Reid argued he's been misconstrued. "Exactly what I said, is that Sheldon Adeleson is great on all social issues, that's what I said. I didn't talk about him any more. I didn't praise Adelson, I just said on social issues he's good. The point is this: We can speculate who is my favorite billionaire and everyone else can but the point is, there's too much money in politics. I've seen a change, I've seen a change that is really not good."
Reid also rejected concerns from many Democrats that his focus on the Kochs has done nothing to help the party.
"The Koch Brothers, I'm not walking away from them. I'm going to be on their tail for the whole campaign because if they think Romney was watched closely by me, that's nothing compared to what it's going to be like with the Koch Brothers. They're spending money in state party races. They're going after secretaries of state. They want to do everything they can to suppress voting. They want to do everything they can to go back to that 1980 campaign," Reid said.
Reid, who has presided over one of the most dysfunctional eras in the Senate, again blamed the media for covering for Senate Republicans by playing a "tit-for-tat" game, and insisted that it was Republicans — and not Reid — who have changed for the worse. "I ran the floor for [former Senate Majority Leader Tom] Dashcle. I did deals with everybody. That was who I was. Republicans loved me because I was so fair. Trent Lott was a pleasure to work with — right-wing conservative but pragmatic. He had conservative credentials but he knew how to get things done … But this new Republican, Frank Luntz, Karl Rove driven conference isn't good for the country," Reid argued.
"They set out to do everything they could to stop Obama and they've done it."
But the normally blunt Reid turned coy when it came to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's likely 2016 presidential run.
"I consider Bill Clinton and Hilary Clinton my friends. Loyalty is a big deal to them. And I've had a bird's-eye view of what that means," Reid said, noting that his son ran Clinton's 2008 Nevada campaign.
"Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton treat him like one of the family … they are very close. So I have such respect for these two good people, once she decides she wants to run, I'll be making a decision. I don't want to be jumping out … I've talked to her. And in my conversations she didn't say no, but she didn't say yes. So once she says yes, I'll do the right thing."
John Stanton is a senior national correspondent for BuzzFeed News. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
Contact John Stanton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kate Nocera is the DC Bureau Chief for BuzzFeed’s Washington, DC bureau. Nocera is a recipient of the National Press Foundation's 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting on Congress.
Contact Kate Nocera at email@example.com.
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