Just as House Republicans maximized the political value of standing with veterans at war memorials on Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid provided conservatives with another talking point in the hearts and minds battle to convince America that Democrats are the shutdown villains after all. Reid, asked about a bill to fund the National Institutes of Health, including clinical trials for kids with cancer, Reid responded, "Why would we want to do that?" Within minutes, Reid became a kids-hating villain as the remarks circulated widely.
First, some context: Reid, in a press conference on Wednesday, was addressing a series of bills proposed by the House Republicans to fund the parts of the government that everyone likes, instead of passing a "clean" resolution to keep funding the whole government without conditions, reopening the entire government. Those "mini" bills would fund parks and other D.C. attractions, veterans, the basic ability of Washington D.C. to use its own money, kids with cancer and other research projects at the National Institutes of Heath, and the National Guard. They face a veto from President Obama and a certain rejection in the Senate, because Democrats have declined to negotiate on the budget until the "clean" CR passes. Reid is worked up about the "mini" bills. For one thing, they're smart ways for Republicans to record Democratic votes against popular, vulnerable people — despite the fact that reopening the government would also support those same things, often with more funding. It's bad for the image. Speaking of which, here's the full exchange between Reid and CNN'S Dana Bash:
DANA BASH: You all talked about children with cancer unable to go to clinical trials. The House is presumably going to pass a bill that funds at least the NIH. Given what you've said, will you at least pass that? And if not, aren't you playing the same political games that Republicans are?
HARRY REID: Listen, Sen. Durbin explained that very well, and he did it here, did it on the floor earlier, as did Sen. Schumer. What right did they have to pick and choose what part of government is going to be funded? It's obvious what's going on here. You talk about reckless and irresponsible. Wow. What this is all about is Obamacare. They are obsessed. I don't know what other word I can use. They're obsessed with this Obamacare thing. It's working now and it will continue to work and people will love it more than they do now by far. So they have no right to pick and choose.
BASH: But if you can help one child who has cancer, why wouldn't you do it?
CHUCK SCHUMER: Why put one against the other?
REID: Why would we want to do that? I have 1,100 people at Nellis Air Force base that are sitting home. They have a few problems of their own. This is -- to have someone of your intelligence to suggest such a thing maybe means you're irresponsible and reckless --
BASH: I'm just asking a question.
In the video, it's clear that Reid was responding to the point brought up by Schumer — why fund kids with cancer, while ignoring, say, other vulnerable kids, or other populations impacted by the shutdown? Why choose? This has been the Democrats' stock response to variations on this question, usually from Republicans on the House floor. But Reid's answer, with a testy tone and a follow-up insult to a reporters' intelligence, caught on. This is how the exchange was picked up by Buzzfeed:
Harry Reid: “Why Would We Want To” Help One Child With Cancer By Only Funding NIH? http://t.co/gsRrm7rRId— Andrew Kaczynski (@BuzzFeedAndrew) October 2, 2013
A position promptly defended, after readers pointed out that the context seemed a bit off in the headline:
Darn you BuzzFeed, writing those misleading headlines in which you quote someone verbatim.— Andrew Kaczynski (@BuzzFeedAndrew) October 2, 2013
The National Republican Senatorial Committee picked up on this characterization of the remarks, sending out a blast asking "How out-of-touch and heartless can Senate Democrats be?"
'Why Would We Want To' Help One Kid With Cancer? http://t.co/9YUsCSqwCf— DRUDGE REPORT (@DRUDGE_REPORT) October 2, 2013
Reid calls Repubs "Anarchists" then says he is willing to sacrifice kid with cancer. MEDIA, WHAT WILL YOU DO? -- http://t.co/4xBz40BjAF— John Nolte (@NolteNC) October 2, 2013
The fact that the talking point works is, in part, Reid's own fault. Reid has a long-documented history of saying mean things, including to reporters like CNN's Bash. And while Reid's comments are abrasive, their status as a chess piece in a game for public sympathy is at best disingenuous. Of course Harry Reid doesn't hate kids with cancer. That's not even what he said. Even though that point should be obvious, he's since defended himself by saying the remarks were taken out of context.
For those following the funding of cancer research before the current shut down, the current debate over whether Reid said a bad thing about cancer funding or not will read even worse: cancer research funds have been hurt since sequestration in a big way, whether Reid supports the "mini" CR to fund the NIH or not. Lawmakers opted to fix FAA funding after the sequester over restoring medicare funding to cancer clinics once the sequester took effect. The NIH has lost $1.7 billion in federal funding since last spring, and would lose $600 million more in the theoretical funding package that was supposed to take effect October 1st, prompting the National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins to say that the lost funds could have funded research for "next cure for cancer or the next Nobel Prize. But we'll never know."