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November 20, 2014

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Harry Reid true to his word to John Ensign

Majority leader, like potential GOP opponent, calls scandal ‘personal matter’

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Steve Marcus

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., left, talks with Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., on Aug. 25, 2009. The two have had a nonaggression pact since 2000.

Sens. Harry Reid and John Ensign

Sen. John Ensign, from left, Sen. Harry Reid and Mayor Oscar Goodman laugh as former Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn passes to take the stage in February to speak at a press conference announcing the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute's partnership with the Cleveland Clinic at the brain institute in Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »
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Sue Lowden

National Democrats sent out a missive Monday morning saying that with Sen. John Ensign under fire, and national Republicans running from him, there was “one person still defending him: Sue Lowden.”

It was part of an ongoing attempt by Democrats to tie Ensign, the Nevada Republican embroiled in an ongoing scandal, to Lowden, who is seeking the Republican Party’s nomination to challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

But Ensign still has at least one other friend in Nevada — Reid.

Through a spokesman Reid said that Ensign’s affair with the wife of a staff member, who also worked for him, is a “personal matter.” That despite a report in The New York Times last week raising allegations that Ensign helped secure employment for Doug Hampton, a former top aide, who apparently went on to lobby the senator’s office in possible violation of the federal one-year lobbying ban. Ensign had been having an affair with Hampton’s wife, Cynthia.

“The ethics committee said they’re looking into it. Sen. Reid is going to stay out of it,” Reid spokesman Jon Summers said. “Sen. Reid believes it’s a personal matter.”

Asked if that meant Reid did not support the ethics investigation, Summers said, “They’re already involved ... You have my comments on the matter.”

Nevada’s two senators have since 2000 abided by an agreement that the two will not criticize each other. The Ensign scandal is sure to test that relationship.

Reid, who faces a difficult reelection campaign, in remaining silent risks being seen as more concerned with preserving his relationship with Ensign than speaking out against questionable ethical behavior — a position that could offend his base.

Many, however, believe Reid would benefit most from remaining silent and seeing a weakened Ensign remain in office. An Ensign exit would remove what appears to be an easy target for Democrats.

Jennifer Duffy, a senior analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, said that before Friday’s report in The Times, she understood Reid’s silence. “It was a touchy thing — a Senate colleague, he still has to work with him on Nevada issues. Maybe it was a safer thing to stand to the side,” she said.

That is no longer the case, she said. “Now they have seemed to have found a much more compelling reasons for an ethics commission investigation, and potentially a Department of Justice investigation, it’s going to be harder for him to sit on the sidelines.”

She said heat could come from members of Reid’s Democratic base, some of whom are already complaining about his moderate positions on a variety of issues, from his vote in 2002 authorizing the war in Iraq to what they see as a lack of involvement in the health care reform debate.

“Reid needs an enthusiastic base right now. He needs them to work for him, come out to vote for him,” she said. His neutrality on Ensign “becomes one more item on the laundry list for the left” that leaves them lukewarm to the Senate leader.

Erin Neff, a former Nevada political columnist who heads the liberal Progress Now Nevada, said Reid is doing a “tap dance” best explained by the nonaggression pact Reid and Ensign agreed to nearly a decade ago.

Although she supports Reid’s reelection, she said, “If there’s some kind of charges that come out, there’s some type of criminality or ethical violation, I expect to see a different tone from Harry Reid.”

(Neff’s nonprofit group received 3.5 percent of its funding from Reid’s political action committee, she said.)

If Reid remains silent on Ensign it also would muddle a line of attack against Lowden for her continuing to embrace Ensign.

Lowden on Monday told Sun columnist Jon Ralston: “I’m on the record as saying that I would appreciate his (Ensign’s) support. I’ve been up and down this state and he has support throughout this state ... I am saying that is a personal issue and you need to calm down about that.”

Robert Uithoven, a political consultant working for Lowden, called Democratic attacks on Lowden hypocritical because they ignore Reid’s nearly identical position.

“I think Harry Reid’s Washington allies are inconsistent with what Harry Reid has said about it,” Uithoven said. “What Sue Lowden has said is consistent with what Sen. Reid has said. What happened is private between Sen. Ensign, his family and colleagues. Until and unless it’s proven otherwise, it’s a personal matter.”

The nonaggression agreement goes back to 2000, when Ensign was elected to the U.S. Senate. Both agreed not to publicly or privately criticize the other, and to work together on Nevada issues.

After Ensign initially disclosed the affair at a June news conference, Reid said: “Everyone knows that Sen. Ensign and I had a very difficult race in 1998. We have become friends since then. I’m concerned about his family, and I hope he works his way through this.”

After the scandal erupted, Ensign’s and Reid’s offices continued sending joint news releases touting legislative accomplishments the two have made in Washington.

A Democratic source insisted that Reid’s neutrality has nothing to do with the nonaggression agreement, saying that he was also silent during the early stages of investigations of other senators, such as David Vitter, Larry Craig and Ted Stevens.

Another Democratic source said the silence from Democrats was just smart, self-interested politics.

“They’ve given themselves enough rope. John Ensign is the best thing to happen to us in a long time,” said one Democratic source. “We’re taking the high road, and letting Republicans do the heavy lifting for us by calling for him to resign.”

But this kind of politicking drew a sharp response from ethics watchdogs.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said, “The rest of the country knows that Sen. Ensign’s conduct was deplorable. It shouldn’t be impossible for a member of senate leadership to say so.”

The latest allegations that Ensign helped former staffer Doug Hampton secure lobbying clients “makes it a matter well beyond the senator and his family,” she said.

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