Road Map: Reid Pokes at Popular Pork

Posted February 22, 2010 at 6:53pm

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is in serious danger of being against it before he was for it.

[IMGCAP(1)]Reid appeared genuinely concerned two weeks ago that a bipartisan Senate Finance jobs bill included too many tax extenders favored by lobbyists, but his comment last week that “fat cats did pretty well” under that bill is sure to come back to haunt him.

And Reid’s handling of the jobs bill is just one of several instances this week in which he has forced his Conference join with him in performing rhetorical gymnastics to explain what exactly Democrats are up to.

Despite the fact that Senate Democrats have tried their darndest to rally behind Reid, it’s looking increasingly likely that the “fat cats” Reid sought to deny will get exactly what they want, with Reid himself telegraphing on the floor Monday his intention to bring up a tax extenders bill by the end of this week.

Spooked by news reports that described the Finance bill as heavy on tax breaks for lobbyists and light on job creation measures, Reid decided to scrap the measure negotiated by Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in favor of a narrower measure that would extend the Highway Trust Fund and a small-business expensing tax credit, give a payroll tax holiday to businesses that hire the unemployed, and continue the Build America Bonds program for local infrastructure projects.

Reid’s calculus that Republicans couldn’t resist voting for the pared-down package paid off Monday evening when the Senate voted 62-30 to take up the bill, with five Republicans voting in favor. Sixty votes were needed to overcome a filibuster.

But regardless of that vote, Reid was bound either way to revive the tax extenders he derided.

Reid’s problem with likening tax extenders to pork for lobbyists is that they are wildly popular in both chambers and include everything from obscure biodiesel credits to routine deductions for child care and teacher supplies. Last time they were renewed, in 2008, they passed the Senate 93-2 with Reid’s support.

But Reid’s decision to abandon the Baucus-Grassley bill — which had the backing of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) — has put Democrats in the awkward position of attempting to argue that Reid’s bill, which had little GOP input, was actually more bipartisan.

Democrats sought to cast the bill as bipartisan even as they claimed that Republicans were, in fact, filibustering the Reid bill — despite the fact that Reid filed cloture on his bill immediately following its introduction.

Hours before Monday’s vote, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) hailed the bill as a bipartisan package of job-creating provisions, before smoothly pivoting into an attack on Republicans for their alleged filibuster. “I’m proud that our first vote this afternoon will be to end a Republican filibuster,” Whitehouse said, adding that “at this point, there’s no reason beyond politics to obstruct” the bill.

Similarly, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) first called the bill “bipartisan” before demanding that Republicans “end the paralysis” of partisan bickering. “Enough with the procedural games … I can’t imagine anyone in a community in my state that would support a filibuster of a jobs bill here in Washington D.C.,” Merkley said.

When asked why he believed the Baucus bill was somehow less bipartisan than Reid’s — which going into Monday night’s vote had no GOP supporters — Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) charged that Republicans may have never intended to vote for the Baucus bill. “I find that Republicans [are] a moving target here. … I think the leader would have had difficulty in moving any bill,” Cardin said.

But keeping up the dual arguments that Reid’s approach was bipartisan while attacking Republicans for lacking bipartisanship was clearly difficult for Democrats. For instance, when asked what the next move should be if Reid’s bill failed Monday, Whitehouse seemed to forget the bipartisan argument altogether.

“It’s sometimes more important to force a clear vote … rather than go back into the swamp of negotiations,” Whitehouse said, arguing that he believes Reid should continue on his chosen path. “Continuing to force votes is the prerogative of the majority. Whether to let them through is the prerogative of a minority that controls 41 votes.”

Reid’s gambit on his jobs bill also handicapped his ability to get time-sensitive party priorities, such as extensions of unemployment benefits and health insurance portability, passed by their expiration on Sunday. Three-month extensions of both were included in the Baucus-Grassley measure, but Reid postponed action on them along with tax extenders.

Reid hopes to assuage liberals who griped that jobless benefits should be extended for a year just as the business tax credits will be. If Reid can’t seal the deal to do that this week, he may opt to pursue a House measure to extend unemployment and other expiring provisions for 15 days while he negotiates with Republicans.

But before the jobless or the “fat cats” get their day, Reid plans to try to shoehorn in one of his pet projects — a tourism promotion bill — before moving to the extenders measure this week.

For Reid, the political calculus on a tourism bill is simple: Las Vegas and Reno are reliant on a vigorous tourism industry, and with his election in doubt, the Majority Leader is clearly using his position to pursue legislation important to his state. Reid may at least make some sort of a case the bill qualifies as a “jobs” measure for his home state. But it will likely be a challenge for other Democrats to do so, particularly at a time when the public is demanding Congress focus on jobs rather than other issues.