Reid slams 'artificial controversy' of Obama's birth

The issue of President Barack Obama’s birth made it to the Senate floor Monday, as Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) defended the president’s citizenship in a sign of growing frustration and partisanship.

Speaking to open the chamber’s daily session, Reid said Republicans are raising the issue of Obama’s birth to distract the public and wound the president’s agenda. Referring to it as “an artificial controversy,” Reid said it “ignores the undeniable and proven fact that President Obama was born in the United States.”

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“Let’s be clear, it’s a phony issue and does not deserve even a minute of our attention on the floor of the United States Senate,” Reid said. “It’s absurd, irresponsible, baseless, and the false claims of long ago have been refuted … The American people should know that rather than helping them get ahead, some of my colleagues would rather spew ludicrous conspiracy theories.”

Reid accused Republican lobbyists of orchestrating an attempt to discredit Obama by sending out fake letters purporting to be from minority groups. He did not name the groups specifically but called the acts “sick, dishonest and really undemocratic.”

Nonpartisan groups have consistently shot down the conspiracy rumors surrounding Obama’s citizenship. FactCheck.org conducted its own inquiry in August 2008 that concluded that while Obama held dual U.S. and Kenyan citizenship as a child and teenager, his Kenyan citizenship expired in 1982, on his 21st birthday.

Reid’s comments come as the Senate begins its last few days of business before its monthlong break. The Senate will vote on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor later in the week, he said, and Democratic aides said a vote is also imminent on a $2 billion infusion for the cash-for-clunkers program as the House passed on Friday.

Reid’s comments also represent the first time Obama’s citizenship has been raised in the Senate — no leading Republicans have raised it on the chamber floor, and in private many of them have told The Hill they want nothing to do with it.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama’s 2008 rival for the presidency, says there is no substance to resurfaced rumors about Obama’s birthplace and birth certificate. McCain said he has never questioned that Obama was born in Hawaii, and mocked those that are raising the issue.

“All I know is that that came up during the campaign, and there was never any credence given to it,” McCain told The Hill. “In these days of the blogosphere, a lot of things are given weight that shouldn’t be. I didn’t ever look into it specifically, but no one in my campaign ever found anything, were given anything, or searched for any information that would lead us to believe that was the case.”

McCain attracted headlines last October when he defended Obama at a town hall meeting at which a woman claimed Obama was “an Arab,” one of the fairly few times that the issue surfaced during the campaign.

Now, Senate Republicans are working to distance themselves from the rumors.

“I thought that was all put to rest during the campaign,” said GOP Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona.

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“I keep hearing it coming up, but nothing’s going to happen and it’s not going to accomplish anything,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). “He’s elected and he’s there. And I’m not part of those people bringing it up.”

Last month, the issue resurfaced at a town hall meeting in left-leaning Delaware hosted by Rep. Mike Castle (R), who is a friend of McCain's, and in a TV interview by former Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter, Liz, who appeared to give the rumors credence. FOX News also aired a story about legal challenges to Obama’s citizenship, and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs fielded a question about it at the White House.

Much of the chatter has come from the so-called “birther” movement that has been continually raising the matter.

Reid on Monday tied the issue to healthcare, suggesting the Republican Party is desperate for ways to block the effort.

“We can’t blame people for wondering why, with an issue as important as healthcare now before us, bipartisan consensus sometimes seem so elusive,” he said. “I say to them, this extreme brand of strategy and the extreme tactics that come with it are what we have to contend with.”