Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday singled out the Koch brothers in an incendiary speech on the chamber floor, calling their involvement in politics "un-American" and accusing them of trying to use their wealth to undermine democracy.
His opening remarks stoked a feud that has grown nastier week by week as Democrats worry about their prospects in November's elections.
Groups associated with Charles and David Koch, billionaire industrialists with deep ties to libertarian and conservative circles, have been running ads attacking Obamacare.
Mr. Reid's Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, hinted that Democrats' big-money backers could face the same sort of demonization that Mr. Reid doled out. It was a signal that the vicious back-and-forth over money's role in politics is just getting started.
"The Koch brothers already believe they can play by a different sent of rules. Think about how an America rigged by the Koch brothers would look," Mr. Reid said.
The Nevada Democrat accused the Kochs of being involved with subsidiaries that do business with Iran and said they are enemies of public education, Medicare and Social Security, as well as President Obama's health care law.
"This fight isn't just about health care or even a few hundred million dollars in disingenuous ads. This is about two very wealthy brothers who intend to buy their own Congress, a Congress beholden to their money and bound to enact their radical philosophy," Mr. Reid said.
Koch defenders said Mr. Reid is trying to criminalize free speech.
One Republican Party strategist with deep ties to the Koch organization said the speech was "the worst abuse of senatorial privilege since Joseph McCarthy." He was referring to the senator from Wisconsin who was censured by his colleagues for an anti-communist crusade in the 1950s.
"It's an unconscionable and indefensible assault on both the First Amendment and on two private citizens whose only sin seems to be that they believe in exercising their First Amendment rights," the strategist said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "When you start attacking people from the floor of the U.S. Senate for exercising their First Amendment rights, you are playing a very dangerous game — a dangerous and stupid game."
The heated exchange is the latest evidence of feverish contests for congressional seats this year. Republicans are expected to make a strong showing to try to end Mr. Reid's eight-year run as majority leader.
Republicans would need to net six more seats to reach 51, which would give them outright control. If the Senate is split 50-50, Vice President Joseph R. Biden's tiebreaking vote would keep Democrats in control.
With voters deeply divided, both parties have increasingly focused on rules that decide who can cast ballots and rules that control campaign messages.
The most pointed battle has been over the Internal Revenue Service's proposal to crack down on political activities of social welfare nonprofits.
Some of the Koch-associated groups have formed under that part of the tax code, which means the groups' financial donors are shielded from disclosure.
After the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010, however, the groups are able to run issue ads in attempts to sway voters. Democrats say that amounts to trying to buy elections.
Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said billionaires who back Democrats do the same thing.
"I wondered why he left out billionaire Tom Steyer, who plans to spend as much as $100 million pushing the issue of climate change in the 2014 election," Mr. McConnell said in reply to Mr. Reid.
Philip Ellender, president of government and public affairs for Koch Companies Public Sector LLC, said Koch organizations are trying to defend American values, constitutional principles, and good-government tenets such as balancing budgets and limiting government regulations.
"We are disappointed that Sen. Reid is attacking private citizens rather than the problems facing this nation," he said in a statement. "It is no wonder that Americans have lost faith in Congress."
Koch representatives have denied many of Mr. Reid's specific attacks, including the charge that a subsidiary did business with Iran. Koch says it followed all U.S. laws and even implemented a policy that was stricter than the law required.
Tuesday's attack was the second in as many weeks for Mr. Reid. Last week, he accused a Koch-associated group, Americans for Prosperity, of running false ads attacking Obamacare.
"There are plenty of horror stories being told. All of them are untrue, but they are being told all over America," he said, again identifying "the multibillionaire Koch brothers" as his target for criticism.
Later that day, Mr. Reid retracted part of his comment and said most, but not all, bad stories about the health care law were untrue.
Mr. Reid also has ended up in a poisonous back-and-forth with Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, in recent days. Mr. Reid, who led a move last year to change long-standing Senate rules on filibusters of presidential nominees, accused Mr. Grassley of flipping his position on whether votes on nominees should be delayed.
Mr. Grassley on Tuesday accused Mr. Reid of violating Senate courtesy and said it was the Democratic leader who blocked President George W. Bush's nominees, then changed the rules when those same tactics were used against Mr. Obama.
The Senate has another set of nomination fights slated for Wednesday.
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