Just How Devious is Harry Reid?

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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Deconstructing Harry: The biggest immigration-related development of last week, it seems to me, was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid confirming the fears of anti-legalizers about what will happen if the House passes a bill (even a tough enforcement bill) and then goes to conference with the Senate (which has passed a sweeping legalization-first bill). From The Hill:

“If we go to conference, we will win,” he said. “In a public debate, it is easy. We would win that easy.” …

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has promised to only bring up any immigration bill or move it to a conference committee if a majority of Republicans support it.

On Friday, Reid gave little incentive for Republicans to negotiate a bill through conference.

“If he wants to pass something and send it over to the Senate we will take a look at it because what we will do is just go to conference and just do our bill anyway,” Reid said. [Emphasis added]

The first bold-faced comment might be seen as just an expression of optimism about public opinion–but it’s harder to put that spin on the second comment.  That doesn’t solve the puzzle, though. You would think that if Reid wanted to sucker Boehner and the House GOP into going into a conference Reid knew he would win, he’d say something soothing like, “We’re willing to talk with the House. Let’s see what they pass and hear their arguments.” Instead, as The Hill notes, he said something that will cause GOP reform skeptics to say “See, we told you. No conference!”

So why did he say it? You sort of have to know his motive to figure out what it means. I see four possibilities:

Possibility 1) He was being arrogant and inexplicably honest: The man is a truthteller! He knows that Boehner and the GOP House leadership, influenced by major donors, are quite willing to cave to the Senate. So that’s what he said would happen. Maybe he thought nobody was listening.

Possibility 2) He was boasting, inaccurately: Reid is talking on his home state’s airwaves. Maybe he wanted to show local Latino activists he’s in charge and on their side, and do some pre-conference posturing–even if he doesn’t necessarily think the Senate actually will “win”  in a conference.

Possibility 3) He wanted to discourage Republicans from going to conference: Reid has been accused of secretly sabotaging “immigration reform” before. Maybe he decided to do it again, not so secretly this time. Why? It could be he’d rather see no bill pass in this Congress so he can blame Republicans in the 2014 off-year election. In other words, “he’d rather have the issue.” This seems like a foolish gamble, though: Most observers think Republicans are going to do fine in the off-year election–and if they do fine after stiffing the Dems on immigration that will only make it harder to scare them into passing a bill in the next Congress. Reid might wind up making no Congressional gains and losing amnesty.

A more plausible sub-theory is that Reid only cares about maintaining his Dem majority in the Senate and thinks the immigration “issue” would work in enough key Senate races, even if GOPs gain a few seats in both Houses. It’s hard to see what those key races would be, though. (North Carolina? Only 4% of its voters were Latino in 2012. Update: Maybe Georgia? Still only about 9% Hispanic by population.)

Alternatively, maybe Reid wants a bill, but he’d rather have no bill than a messy conference that a) might muddle the issue of which party is to blame for what and b) is unlikely, in his judgment, to produce an acceptable bill, assuming Boehner really has to please a majority of his own conference. So sabotage it now.

Possibility 4) He wants GOPs to think he doesn’t want to go to conference so they will want to go to conference: The always present double-reverse psychology possibility. Under this theory, Reid is smart enough to know Republicans will gravitate toward Theory 3–that he’s trying to sabotage the bill. ‘Hmm,’ they’ll think to themselves–‘Reid must be really confident that the issue will work for him in 2014. We should be scared! Or else he’s worried about all the great conservative concessions we might extract in conference. Let’s make his nightmare come true!’ Reid will then get the conference he really wants. Note: This is one level more Machiavellian than the usual Briar-Patch strategy. Reid isn’t saying “Don’t throw me into that briar patch!” He saying, “Throw me into that briar patch!’ because that’s the best way to convince his opponents he doesn’t want to be thrown into the briar patch, even though he actually does.

Theory 4 seems too convoluted, but Theory 3 seems somehow too obvious. Theories 1 and 2 are too simple. You make the call! …

Mickey Kaus