By Alexander Bolton - 09/20/12 12:45 AM EDT
Republicans say Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) flouted the spirit of ethical prohibitions against political activity on federal property Wednesday after he ripped Mitt Romney on the Senate floor.
They say Reid, who in July accused Romney of not paying taxes for a period of 12 years, has engaged in political activity that would violate federal rules if not for the Speech and Debate clause of the Constitution.
Reid pounced on Romney on Wednesday for remarks he made earlier this year characterizing “47 percent” of the nation as people who believe they are victims and who rely on government handouts.
“He’s campaigning on the Senate floor. It’s the taxpayer-funded Senate floor. The speech had nothing to do with the Senate. It was a pure campaign speech. You couldn’t give it in the rotunda. You couldn’t give it in my office. It’s a taxpayer-funded building,” said a senior Senate Republican aide.
Reid has long relished his role as an attack dog, using the Senate floor this year to criticize Romney.
“He’s completely out of touch with Americans,” Reid declared of Romney, seizing on Romney’s videotaped comments from a Florida fundraiser, which surfaced on Monday.
“This week we learned Mitt Romney only wants to be president of half of the United States. If Mitt Romney were president, he wouldn’t waste time worrying about the 47 percent of Americans who he believes are victims, who Romney believes are unwilling to take personal responsibility,” Reid said.
“If he won’t stand up and fight for every American as president, then he doesn’t deserve to serve any American as president,” he added.
Reid, who was targeted by Republicans in 2010, roiled the presidential race earlier this year by claiming an anonymous investor in Bain Capital, of which Romney formerly served as CEO, told him the GOP nominee had not paid taxes for a decade.
“The things Reid says on the Senate floor ha[ve] nothing to do with governance,” said another GOP aide. “It’s what you would hear at a political rally. He would go into a convent and crush Romney if he thought he had to.”
Reid’s office pushed back on Wednesday evening.
“If Republicans want to take to the Senate floor and defend their presidential nominee calling half of the country ‘victims,’ we would welcome that,” said Reid’s spokeswoman, Kristen Orthman. “But this is also a legitimate policy issue. Mitt Romney and Republicans in Congress say they want to overhaul this country’s tax policy. The American people deserve to know whether their plans will benefit all Americans or only multimillionaires like Mitt Romney.”
Democratic aides also note that Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), regularly go to the floor to bash President Obama.
A federal law known as the Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity while on duty, in a federal facility or while using federal property.
Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius ran afoul of the Hatch Act earlier this year during an official trip to North Carolina where she endorsed a Democrat for governor. HHS subsequently reclassified the event as political activity and the Democratic National Committee paid for the costs associated with it.
Senate ethics rules state chamber resources may only be used for official purposes. But this restriction has been largely interpreted as a ban on receiving or soliciting campaign contributions in Senate buildings.
Robert Dove, who served as Senate parliamentarian from 1981 to 1987 and from 1995 to 2001, said there are few restrictions on what senators can say on the floor.
“There are only two things you cannot say on the Senate floor: You cannot criticize another state in the union and you cannot impute to any senator any action unbecoming to a senator,” said Dove, who also served as legislative consultant to former Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole (Kan.). “Everything else is open and allowed.”
A Democratic leadership aide said Dove’s interpretation of Senate rules is correct.
“There is nothing in the standing rules of the Senate that would be triggered by what Reid said,” the aide said.
Reid’s floor comments are protected by Article I of the Constitution, which states “for any Speech or Debate in either House, [lawmakers] shall not be questioned in any other place.”
Republican criticisms of Reid attempted to turn scrutiny back on the Democratic leader, instead of Romney, who has stumbled through two weeks of withering media coverage because of controversial statements.
McConnell was intent Wednesday on not letting himself get bogged down in a political defense of Romney on a day when Congress was set to honor Burmese human-rights advocate Aung San Suu Kyi.
McConnell did not mention Romney as he spoke on the Senate floor Wednesday morning after Reid delivered his scorching attack.
“The speech was planned for weeks. A hero in the effort to spread democracy came to the Capitol today, and she deserved to be recognized,” said John Ashbrook, a spokesman for McConnell.
McConnell again did not mention Romney when he delivered a statement to television cameras and reporters following the weekly Republican caucus lunch. In an unusual move, he left the microphone without taking any press questions, letting his deputies run the media availability.
A senior GOP aide pointed out that McConnell needed to attend an event honoring the Burmese human-rights advocate.
Republicans have turned mum on the subject of Romney as his campaign has faltered in recent days, prompting concerns among some GOP strategists that he could imperil their bid to take over the Senate.
Two GOP senators said Romney was discussed only briefly at the Wednesday lunch.
— Molly K. Hooper contributed to this report.