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In a battle royal: Reid, McConnell face off

By Lisa Desjardins, CNN Capitol Hill Reporter
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Wed June 4, 2014
  • Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Mitch McConnell in a rare joint appearance at Senate hearing
  • Reid is pushing to change the Constitution to override a court decision opening up campaign spending
  • The hearing was an exercise in the tricky personal and political barbs that now litter the Senate

Washington (CNN) -- No blood was spilled.

But otherwise, a packed Senate hearing room Tuesday watched the political equivalent of a heavyweight fight.

Top Senate Democrat Harry Reid sat just feet from rival Republican Leader Mitch McConnell for a rhetorical battle royal over campaign finance and Reid's push to change the Constitution to limit that spending.

"The Constitution doesn't give corporations a vote, and it doesn't give dollar bills a vote," said Reid.

The Nevada Democrat is pushing for a Constitutional amendment to override the Supreme Court's 2010 "Citizens United" decision and allow Congress to set firm limits on independent and corporate campaign spending in federal elections.

The proposal, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Michael Bennet of Colorado, would also allow states to set more campaign limits in their elections.

The Judiciary Committee hearing set up a rare side-by-side appearance by Reid and McConnell, two powerful leaders who are known for their sometimes bitter disagreements over process and policy in the Senate.

The effect was electric as the hearing started. Hundreds of seated spectators craned their necks to see both men. As McConnell looked straight ahead at the panel of senators, Reid swung.

"Campaign finance reform has been proposed a number of times before -- even by my counterpart, Senator McConnell," Reid said.

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The Democratic leader pointed to the Republican's 1988 proposal that would have restricted some PAC and so-called "soft-money" contributions made to organizations.

McConnell's office has said that the proposal was an alternative to a much more limiting campaign finance bill and insists he has not voted for any funding restrictions since. But Reid kept at it.

"Senator McConnell had the right idea (in 1988)," he offered. The Nevada senator also employed his signature move in the debate, blasting conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, saying the brothers run 15 "phantom" or "phony" campaign funding organizations.

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McConnell waited his turn. Reid finished but then surprised some in the room, indicating he would not stay to hear McConnell's response.

Reid's office later told CNN that he had to give remarks at a meeting about mental health and suicide prevention.

As he moved to leave, Reid joked that his Republican counterpart likely would not be upset by his departure.

"Nope, no problem," McConnell deadpanned.

To scattered laughter, Reid exited. Then, the Republican punched back.

"Given how incredibly bad this amendment is, I can't blame my friend, the majority leader, from wanting to talk about the Koch Brothers or what I may have said over a quarter century ago," McConnell said.

The Kentucky Republican jabbed at the proposal to give Congress control of campaign limits. He called it a threat to basic speech rights and then got to the basic disagreement of the debate: Whether limiting campaign dollars is also limiting speech.

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By setting spending rates, McConnell argued, Congress would choose who gets how much influence in politics.

"Not only would (this proposal) allow the government to favor some speakers over others, it would guarantee preferential treatment," McConnell argued.

Other senators in the hearing soon rang in, exchanging quotes from the founding fathers and debating which political party was truly protecting free speech.

"This amendment is about power and it is about silencing citizens," boomed Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican of Texas. "When did the (Democrats) abandon the Bill of Rights? ... This would give Congress the power to ban books and muzzle movies."

Members of the group Public Citizen, which opposes the "Citizens United" ruling that removed legal barriers preventing corporations and unions from spending unlimited sums on federal elections, laughed mockingly as Cruz spoke. A few rows ahead, some others shot them stern looks.

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Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer responded directly to Cruz' strike at Democrats.

"I think if Thomas Jefferson were looking down at what's being proposed here, he would agree with it," Schumer said.

The New Yorker noted that the Supreme Court has upheld some limits on speech, including restrictions on things like child pornography. He directly challenged the Texas tea party favorite.

"I want to ask you Sen. Cruz - are you against anti-child pornography laws?" Schumer asked.

At the time, Cruz was gone, voting on the Senate floor. When he returned, he was not pleased.

"I understand that in my absence Sen. Schumer very kindly gave a lecture on civility and encouraged me not to go over the top, while he then in the same breath accused me of supporting child pornography," Cruz told the committee sarcastically. "So I appreciate that demonstration in senatorial restraint from the senior senator from New York."

The hearing was both a serious, powerful debate and an exercise in the tricky personal and political barbs that now litter the Senate.

Attendance alone indicated the high stakes and interest in the topic -- with a long hallway full of people being sent to an overflow room to watch the hearing from the building next door.

The subject has keen advantages to both political sides, both use it to stoke their bases.

But while the hearing may have been high-interest, McConnell ultimately raised the bottom-line question: Where will this constitutional amendment push end up?

"Everybody on this committee knows this proposal is never going to pass Congress. This is a political exercise and that's all this is," McConnell told the committee.

Democrats insist they will fight for the change, but there is no vote scheduled yet on the proposal and it is not clear when there could be one.

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