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EXCLUSIVE: Harry Reid: 'Of Course' Medicare for All and Decriminalising Border Crossings Are Bad Ideas

"There are so many more important things to do," the former Senate majority leader said.

by Cameron Joseph
20 August 2019, 4:02pm

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) isn’t happy that some of his party’s presidential candidates are pushing for Medicare for All and decriminalizing border crossings, two hot-button issues in the Democratic primary.

In a half-hour phone conversation with VICE News, Reid was blunt when asked if he thought supporting Medicare for All would be problematic in the 2020 general election.

“Of course it would be,” he said. “How are you going to get it passed?”

“I think that we should focus on improving Obamacare. We can do that — without bringing something that would be much harder to sell,” he said when asked his thoughts on the debate over whether Democrats should pursue Medicare for All or a more modest Obamacare expansion. “Improving Obamacare: People understand that. They would appreciate that. It locks in many important things.”

The onetime Democratic powerhouse and Nevada kingmaker had similar thoughts about another issue dividing the 2020 Democratic presidential field: whether to decriminalize the act of crossing into the U.S. without authorization.

Decriminalizing the border

“There are so many more important things to do. Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list. It should be way, way down at the bottom of the list,” Reid said, responding with a curt “of course it is” when asked if supporting that position would be politically problematic in the general election.

“There are so many more important things to do.”

“People want a fair immigration system. They don’t want an open-door invitation for everybody to come at once,” argued Reid.

READ: These 2020 Democrats are basically running 'zombie' campaigns now

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro led the call to eliminate the misdemeanor penalty associated with crossing into the U.S. without authorization, a measure that has been weaponized by President Trump’s administration to detain undocumented immigrants and separate families.

He has been joined by a number of the race’s top-tier Democrats, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Sanders, Warren, Harris also support Medicare for All, though Harris’s plan doesn’t go as far in eliminating private insurance. Former Vice President Joe Biden disagrees with them on both counts and has run hard on the argument that a candidate who supports Medicare for All would be a political disaster.

Reid retired from Congress in 2017 after a bad fall during a workout that forced him to have multiple eye surgeries. He’s since been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But while his mobility has been limited and he’s lost his hair to chemotherapy, Reid has kept his fire for politics — and plenty of irons in the political fire.

READ: Iowa Democrats are getting worries about Biden's trail of gaffes

Nearly all of the 2020 candidates have made a point to kiss the ring of the man who built Nevada’s vaunted Democratic political machine and still holds immense power in the state — he’s had long conversations recently with candidates including Pete Buttigieg and his old Senate colleague Joe Biden.

His former aides populate many of the 2020 contenders' campaigns: Warren’s communications director, Sanders’ campaign manager, and Harris’s top Nevada adviser are all Reid alumni.

Eliminating the filibuster

While Reid’s comments on healthcare and immigration put him squarely in line with the party’s centrists, he recently penned an op-ed calling for the elimination of the filibuster, a controversial view even among Democrats. That puts him on the same page as Warren, Buttigieg and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee — but in disagreement with most of the current and former Senate Democrats in the race, including Sanders, Biden, Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

“I think it would be better if the Senate have majority rule.”

“The filibuster is just no longer useful. The Senate does nothing anymore. No one offers amendments; they can’t, [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell won’t let them. All they do is vote on judges, that’s all they do,” Reid griped. “I think it would be better if the Senate have majority rule. Where did we ever come up with 60 being the magical number?”

Reid has vowed to not endorse any candidate before Nevada’s caucuses, an event slotted immediately after Iowa and New Hampshire that gives the state outsized power in the nomination process. But that doesn’t mean he’s any more filtered — or much less involved — than he was in the past.

READ: Democrats have never been more united on gun control. That could change everything.

He called the Biden campaign’s field operation in Nevada “good,” Harris’s “great,” and Warren’s “sensational.”

Reid said thinks “the world” of Biden, who he said had “very minor disagreements” with in the three-plus decades the two worked together, sidestepping past fights over Biden’s deal-making approach to politics. But he saved his warmest praise for Warren, who Reid brought into politics when he put her on a board overseeing the Wall Street bailout after the 2008 economic collapse and later backed for Senate.

“I’ve been impressed with Elizabeth. She is not hiring a bunch of pollsters and consultants. Everything she’s doing is in-house,” Reid said. “I’m not going to endorse anyone until after the caucuses but everyone has to be impressed with what she’s doing.”

Cover: Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks with Roll Call about Nevada politics, the presidential race and baseball in his office at the Bellagio in Las Vegas on Tuesday, July 2, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)