Harry Reid made Democrat Bob Kerrey a special promise if he’d jump into the Nebraska race for his old Senate seat. So what was it: a chance to reclaim his senatorial seniority? A plum committee gavel? Campaign cash for his race?
Nobody will say, but one thing is certain: Questions swirling around Kerrey’s arrangement will dog the two-term former senator until he or the majority leader come clean.
Republican critics are hammering Kerrey from Washington to Lincoln for cutting a “backroom deal” with Reid. And some Democrats are lamenting that Kerrey’s moment of candor — acknowledging a proposition he said would benefit Nebraskans — has reinforced his image as a Washington insider in a state that’s become synonymous with political wheeling and dealing.
“In this environment, people hate Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, and bragging about a sort of inside deal is not the best way to start,” said one Democratic operative in Washington who’s not working on the Nebraska race. “And it just brings back memories of the Cornhusker Kickback.”
That’s the name Republicans gave to Reid’s Medicaid funding deal with retiring Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) to allegedly secure his vote for the health care law. Under fire for brokering the deal, Nelson — the man Kerrey is vying to replace — later urged Reid to drop any special treatment for the Cornhusker State. But the catchy label stuck.
“On the heels of the Cornhusker Kickback, any sort of backroom deal is going to be poorly received,” Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, who is running for the GOP nomination in the Senate race, said in a phone interview. “We are extremely sensitive to backroom deals, especially given our moment in the spotlight with the Cornhusker Kickback — it was incredibly embarrassing.”
During what was widely viewed as a clumsy campaign rollout last week, Kerrey said in a TV interview that Reid had made “important” promises to him before he committed to jumping in the race.
“I asked for them and he agreed,” Kerrey told Nebraska Watchdog, declining to get into the specifics of what was offered. “I wouldn’t cut any deal unless it’s beneficial to Nebraska. I didn’t ask him to buy me lunch every other week or do anything that’s going to be personally beneficial to me.”
The former Nebraska governor might have been practicing smart politics — what candidate wouldn’t want a guarantee of seniority or influential committee assignments? — but the admission was a hand-delivered gift to opponents before the race has even begun in earnest.
“Sen. Kerrey will pay a price for that,” said GOP Sen. Mike Johanns, a former Nebraska governor who served as George W. Bush’s agriculture secretary. “People get suspicious about what he was offered, and he won’t talk about it. He refuses to say what’s in this special deal for Bob Kerrey.”
Kerrey, a decorated Vietnam veteran and 1992 presidential candidate known for his bluntness — he once called Bill Clinton “an unusually good liar” — was not made available for this story, and his campaign declined to comment. A Reid spokesman also declined to discuss details of the talks on the record.
But other senior Democrats say they trust Reid is working in the best interests of the caucus.
“That’s a majority leader decision. I’ll support the majority leader,” Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the eighth-most senior Democrat, told Politico. “I think the majority leader always knows what the caucus thinks, and he reaches out to them.”