Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010 | 2 a.m.
CATERING TO THE BASEBy embedding the DREAM Act and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” issues into the military spending bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hopes to motivate Hispanic and liberal voters in Nevada. But the move could further energize anti-immigration Republicans.
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In close races, conventional political wisdom says it’s risky business to raise issues that might alienate centrist voters.
But just a few weeks before the start of early voting, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is making a push to address two of the most emotional — and electorate-splitting — issues out there: immigration reform, and the role of gays in the military.
Led by Reid, Democrats are hoping to advance a repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on sexual orientation, and the long-simmering DREAM Act, which would provide green cards to young illegal immigrants enlisted in the military or enrolled in college.
The issues would be considered as part of the annual defense authorization bill, which the Senate will begin to debate today.
Polls show Democratic voters are significantly less excited about the upcoming midterm election than their Republican counterparts. By attaching these contentious pieces of legislation to a must-pass measure, Reid stands to generate among his base constituencies enthusiasm that could deliver a big payoff on Election Day.
“This is for the base voters,” Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington, said.
The Republican base “is already fired up — if they were fired up any more they might implode. It’s really doing something that makes the Democratic base voters happy,” she said.
Nevada’s liberal bloc, such as it is, has always had a mixed relationship with Reid. While the right has accused him of carrying the national party’s “progressive” agenda, he is regarded by progressives as a moderate pragmatist, more interested in getting a deal done than hewing to any liberal orthodoxy. He has irked labor by opposing coal-fired power plants and environmentalists for protecting Nevada’s mining industry.
By repealing DADT, a provision already written into the base bill, Reid might help Democrats assuage hard-core liberals, who have been disappointed Congress and President Barack Obama didn’t do more for the progressive agenda with their supermajorities. With the DREAM Act, Reid potentially enables Democrats to motivate Hispanic supporters still waiting for comprehensive immigration reform — a potentially crucual cohort in Nevada, where Hispanics make up 26 percent of the state population but only 15 percent of the electorate.
But although passing such measures is potentially pleasing to some voters, it is anathema to many others who will also help decide the race between Reid and Republican challenger Sharron Angle.
“What this will do is invigorate the Republicans and the conservatives and the Tea Party people,” said Chuck Muth, a Nevada Republican strategist. “The DREAM Act will be seen as amnesty, and “don’t ask, don’t tell” as a soft one to the gay rights movement … and both are going to slow down the defense authorization, which will open him up to criticism that he’s abandoning the troops in the field. So it’s a triple loss for him.”
Angle’s campaign has leapt on the immigration issue, running spots calling Reid “the best friend an illegal alien ever had.” Angle spokesman Jarrod Agen called the DREAM Act a “cheap political ploy that’s going to backfire on Harry.”
Reid’s campaign insists the timing has nothing to do with politics.
“This is not something to play to the base,” Reid spokesman Tom Brede said. “It’s just good policy.”
But whether or not it’s intentional, politics appear to be trumping policy in Washington as these issues move forward. Many are concerned that Republicans who might otherwise have supported a vote on “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the DREAM Act will balk at handing the Democrats an apparent victory so close to the elections.
Reid and bill manager Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said they are not sure they will be able to get enough senators — 60 — to support the procedural vote on the bill necessary to push the debate forward, and open the floor to adding amendments — of which the DREAM Act is expected to be first.
That stands in contrast to positions some members have taken in the past.
The last time the DREAM Act came up for a vote, in 2007, it did not pass, but 12 Republicans supported the measure. This time, Democrats aren’t sure if they will get any Republicans to support a cloture vote on the defense authorization bill.
On “don’t ask, don’t tell,” many Republicans have said they prefer to defer to the decisions of military leaders, a position echoed by the Angle campaign. This year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates came out in support of repealing the policy.
Republicans are nonetheless expected to attempt to block the addition of the DREAM Act, and potentially even purge the existing language on repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” from the defense bill. Led by Arizona Sen. John McCain — a former champion of immigration reform who has tacked to the right on the issue this campaign season — they have been making the case against inclusion of both measures on the ground that they are not relevant to the bill.
That’s an argument that Democrats have disputed.
“As members of the military community have pointed out, that bill could be a real stimulus to recruiting,” Levin said.
Despite the growing fever pitch of the debate, it is unlikely it could derail the defense authorization bill, which has passed the Senate for 48 consecutive years. But it likely won’t happen before the election.
Reid said last week that he does not expect the Senate to complete its work on the defense bill until Congress returns after the election for a lame duck session. But Democratic strategists hope an opening cloture vote on the bill and a vote on the DREAM Act amendment could be enough to deliver to their base.
Bob Fulkerson, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said he’s seen excitement over the DADT repeal and DREAM Act in phone banking over the past few days.
“I think both of these things will do wonders in putting more fire into the base,” he said. “We’ve seen a huge sense of excitement about the DREAM Act and Sen. Reid in the Hispanic community.”
Karoun Demirjian reported from Washington. David McGrath Schwartz reported from Carson City.