By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — The time has come to stop the denial and to admit that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has a Koch problem.
More than 100 times on the Senate floor in the past few months, the Senate’s top Democrat has invoked Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into conservative causes and campaigns.
After a brief respite during the Easter recess (during which time Reid turned his ire to the “domestic terrorists” who supported Cliven Bundy in Reid’s home state of Nevada) the senator has relapsed into a full-blown Koch habit.
Opening a minimum wage debate Wednesday, he said that if “Americans are searching for an answer” to why Republicans “would refuse to raise the minimum wage, they should look no further than Republicans’ billionaire benefactors — I repeat, billionaire benefactors — the Koch brothers.”
After Republicans blocked a minimum wage increase with a filibuster, Reid went to the Senate TV gallery and complained that “Republicans are defending … the Koch brothers, while they come to the floor and oppose raising the minimum wage.”
A reporter asked a question about a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit campaign contributions. Reid answered with a non sequitur: “The Koch brothers, of course, have — they scored this vote,” he said. “In effect what they did is say, ‘If you vote yes, we’re not going to be with you anymore.’”
I caught up with Reid in the hall outside and asked whether he was concerned that all these Koch mentions were turning him into a Koch addict. “I tried that line; nobody picked it up,” he said. “I said they were Koch addicts.”
He did, on March 4: “Senate Republicans are addicted to Koch.”
But somebody picked it up: The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website, included it in a montage it made this month of the 134 times Reid uttered the Koch name, nearly all since he first tried a Koch line on Feb. 26. These include: “Koch dollars,” “Koch money,” “Koch ads,” “Kochs’ immorality,” “Koch brothers’ radical philosophy,” “Koch brothers’ lies,” “Koch-Ryan budget” and “I’m not afraid of the Koch brothers.” Reid also described the Kochs as Las Vegas illusionists and “power-drunk billionaires.”
Reid went too far when he suggested that the Kochs’ attempt to “buy America” made them “about as un-American as anyone I can imagine.” That is factually incorrect. The Roberts Supreme Court has made it downright patriotic to buy elections.
The senator recognizes that in modern politics it works to demonize the enemy — and as ultra-secretive oil tycoons, the Kochs come from bogeyman central casting. Conservatives did the same thing — and worse — to liberal billionaire George Soros, who endured attacks by Glenn Beck in 2010 that had anti-Semitic overtones. Tom DeLay, Nancy Pelosi, Karl Rove and Reid himself, among many others, have served as demons.
Some Democrats have joined Reid in his Koch campaign, but a search of the Congressional Record finds that of the 74 occasions on which the Kochs have come up during this Congress, Reid was responsible for 29 of them.
In Wednesday’s Senate debate, Reid found a way to blame the Kochs for the Republicans’ opposition to the minimum wage increase. “Absolutely no one was surprised yesterday when Americans for Prosperity, which is only one of the Koch-funded political organizations, instructed Republicans in Congress to vote against a minimum wage increase,” he said.
Reid went on to contend that “the will of the Koch brothers seems to be the top priority for my Republican colleagues” and that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., “will need to check with the Koch brothers first” before drafting legislation.
After Democrats fell six votes short of breaking the filibuster, Reid told reporters that “six Republicans have rushed to defend Dave and Charlie, the Koch brothers. … If the same number of Republicans voted with us, we would have minimum wage.”
An aide said Reid was referring to public remarks by six Republican senators defending the Kochs. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called the pair “the left’s latest bizarre obsession,” while Louisiana’s David Vitter proclaimed “God bless the Koch brothers” and Ted Cruz of Texas spoke of the “impropriety” of Reid trying to turn “two private citizens” into “characters almost out of Dr. Seuss.” The Louisiana Republican Party filed an ethics complaint against Reid, saying he used his government-funded Web site to attack the brothers.
Good luck with that. An ethics complaint is weak medicine for an advanced Koch dependency.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.