Politico Pro: Reid pushes greens to hold friendly fire
May 20, 2011
Posted by Matt Dempsey Matt_Dempsey@epw.senate.gov
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Reid pushes greens to hold friendly fire
By Darren Samuelsohn
May 20, 2011
Harry Reid made it clear to environmental group big shots on Wednesday that he doesn't want any friendly fire causing problems as he defends his razor-thin majority in 2012.
Reid didn't raise his voice during the exchange. That's not the Nevada Democrat's style. Still, he showed he wasn't pleased that the typically nonpartisan League of Women Voters - whose advocacy director Lloyd Leonard was in the room - had targeted Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) with its "People, Not Polluters" ad that depicted a little girl coloring while wearing an oxygen mask.
"He was unhappy about that," said a source with knowledge of the meeting with Reid. "He's supposed to be. That's his job."
But scarred by their own big loss last year on global warming legislation, the greens countered that playing nice hasn't always worked out so well for them.
As they parted ways, they agreed to disagree over the use last month of the hardball ad attacking McCaskill for her floor vote to freeze the EPA's climate change powers for two years.
"Sometimes at the dinner table you talk about things that get a little sticky, but you come out of the room and you're still family," said another environmentalist familiar with the 45-minute meeting in Reid's office.
Greens know they're in a tough spot as they confront Reid. Activists need the Senate Democratic leader to be their backstop against what are likely to be more House GOP-led attacks to stop the EPA, including on upcoming fights over the budget and raising the debt ceiling.
Asked Thursday if she was concerned about other green groups coming after her during her 2012 reelection campaign, McCaskill said, "All of my opponents believe that global warming is hoax. So I'm trying to figure out what they think they're accomplishing."
Environmentalists invited to Reid's office for the meeting Wednesday almost uniformly declined comment.
"In an incredibly uncharacteristic display of discipline, Margie Alt is speaking for the group," said John Podesta, former President Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff who is now running the Center for American Progress.
Alt, the executive director of Environment America, insisted that greens and Senate Democratic leaders are still on the same page.
"Protecting our kids' health and the Clean Air Act is the community's top priority in the Congress," she wrote in an email. "Leadership has been terrific so far at making that happen. We all anticipate continued attacks on EPA and its ability to keep our air clean. The meeting was a good opportunity to exchange views on how best to do that. And we resolved that we will need to work together even more closely to ensure we can continue to win."
Pressed for specifics on how Reid confronted the greens over the attack ads, Alt replied, "We talked about all sorts of tactics and strategies ... I thought he was totally clear this was a big priority for them, as well as a big priority for us."
McCaskill told POLITICO on Wednesday she hadn't asked Reid to speak with the green groups. "I can fight my own fights," she said.
But she also challenged the League of Women Voters, who she said is "fronting for somebody who ran the ad."
"At a minimum, I think the League of Women Voters should not hide behind Citizens United and should be transparent about who's paying for the ad," McCaskill said. "I think that's really tacky for an organization who's prided itself on transparency and good government, for them to become part of the bad guys who are hiding donors behind the cloak of their good name."
Leonard, the League of Women Voters' senior advocacy director, declined to comment on the meeting.
LWV President Elisabeth MacNamara assumed ownership of the commercials it ran against McCaskill. "These are our ads," she said Wednesday. "This is about the issue of public health and the public knows who is speaking. We've stood behind and fought for the Clean Air Act for 40 years. At issue is Sen. McCaskill's vote, which has endangered the public health."
Environmentalists have struggled to find the right balance in pushing the climate issue when they have so many allies in the White House and on Capitol Hill. They couldn't pass a cap-and-trade bill during President Barack Obama's first two years in office despite large Democratic majorities in Congress. Now, they're desperate to avoid any losses on EPA's greenhouse gas emissions authority.
"From their perspective, this is their No. 1 priority," said one green source. "And what good is a Democratic majority when we can't get our main item passed and we're fighting tooth and nail without slipping backward? What good is Claire McCaskill in the Senate if she's not for us?"
McCaskill also wasn't the only target of the League of Women Voters campaign; Sen. Scott Brown's anti-EPA vote was also scrutinized in an almost identical commercial, prompting the Massachusetts Republican party to respond with a complaint to the Federal Election Commission.
Environmentalists have long struggled with what to do when Democrats don't walk the talk on their issues. It's a complicated situation, especially when Democrats on both sides of the Capitol are openly questioning whether greens have any political power to help someone get elected, or for that matter, defeated.
"Targeting me actually helped my reelection in my state," said Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, who in 2008 was named to the League of Conservation Voters's Dirty Dozen list. "What some of these environmental groups don't realize is how different states are and how many different regions of the country are."
"I don't know what it will do to Claire, but I wouldn't worry too much about it if I was her," Landrieu added.
Over the years, LCV has focused most of its money and ads on Republicans. But it also has picked on a token number of Democrats who don't take their side.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas landed on the Dirty Dozen list in 2010. Other targets have included Reps. Dan Boren of Oklahoma and Henry Cuellar of Texas in 2006, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota in 2004, Rep. Ken Lucas of Kentucky in 2002, Rep. James Traficant of Ohio in 2000 and Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas in 1998.
Gene Karpinski, LCV's president and one of the participants in Wednesday's meeting in Reid's office, declined comment when asked about the factors that go into challenging Democrats.
"There's no magic rule here, it's all tactical," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, the longtime champion of cap-and-trade legislation who complained to LCV in 2004 after the group endorsed John Kerry's presidential campaign instead of his.
"I don't have any counsel to offer except they should judge wisely," the Connecticut independent added.
Enough activists wrestled with whether to support Ralph Nader over Al Gore in 2000 that it became one of many storylines during the Florida recount that ultimately led to George W. Bush winning the White House.
And greens agonized last month over how hard to swing at President Barack Obama as he wiggled around the question of vetoing GOP-backed spending legislation to kneecap the EPA.
Reid spokesman Jon Summers on Wednesday said that the meeting with the greens was part of the majority leader's usual outreach to key constituency groups. "Standard meeting. They discussed priorities and talked about how best to work together to protect public health and the environment from bad legislation like the bill Republicans tried to pass today," he said, referring to a GOP pro-offshore drilling measure that failed in a procedural vote.
But some environmentalists were more up front about the exchange.
Michael Brune, executive director of the San Francisco-based Sierra Club, used Twitter on Wednesday to spill the beans about the meeting.
"What do u think about holding D's accountable for votes to gut Cl Air Act/keep oil subsidies?" Brune posted on Twitter.
Environmental officials gathering in the Capitol before their meeting with Reid cracked jokes about Brune's use of multimedia. Speaking to Nevada reporters, Reid didn't think it was very funny.
"I think whoever this is in the Sierra Club had better get his facts right," the majority leader said, according to the Las Vegas Sun. "I don't buy the illogic of the tweet."