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July 22, 2014

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At Chamber meeting, Harry Reid plays to the center

Chamber of Commerce luncheon

Sen. Harry Reid speaks at a Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday at the Four Seasons. Launch slideshow »

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Beyond the Sun

About 100 protesters walked a picket line of sorts outside the Four Seasons on Las Vegas Boulevard Wednesday afternoon, denouncing the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce for hosting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as the keynote speaker for its luncheon.

The common complaint: Harry Reid, Too Liberal For Nevada.

Had they been allowed to join about 500 business leaders feasting on Asian chicken salad and cold soy marinated salmon, Reid would have likely surprised them. The theme emerging from his remarks: Compromise -- and the need for Republican votes.

On health care and labor law reform, two of the Chamber's biggest issues, Reid seemed determined to win bipartisan legislation.

Although the Chamber members were likely happy to hear Reid mollify them, his comments would have been jarring to the liberal wing of his party, which is increasingly disenchanted with Democrats in Washington for not pushing harder on progressive legislation.

The meeting would seem to illustrate the vice Reid finds himself in: Accused by Republicans of being a wild-eyed liberal, he is viewed by his own party's left wing as being too conciliatory.

On Monday, Reid said he had little choice, especially with the passing of Sen. Edward Kennedy and the frail health of Sen. Robert Byrd.

"We need a few Republican votes on everything we do," he said, referring to the 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority needed to open and close debate.

Reid said his starting point is 58 Democrats, some of whom are centrist and wary of the party's agenda.

On health care, Reid said Democrats would work with Republicans on a bipartisan bill for "a few weeks" when Congress returns from the August recess.

He mentioned the possibility of passing a partisan bill with a simple majority through a process known as reconciliation, but said such a move would only accomplish about 65 percent of what his party considers necessary. The reason: provisions would have to relate directly to government revenue.

Reid decried reform opponents for saying Congress was trying to implement socialism in the health care system. To point, he practically boasted that Congress never seriously considered a so-called single payer system, the preferred choice of liberals and labor unions.

Besides insisting that people with preexisting conditions receive coverage and that patients retain the right to sue for medical malpractice, Reid spoke generally about health care. He did not mention the public option -- a proposed government-run health insurance program like Medicare aimed at forcing private insurers to cut costs and improve coverage -- which many Democrats, including Sen. Charles Schumer, consider essential to reducing costs.

Reid did, however, take a large swing at the insurance industry. He said he favored repealing a law that exempts insurance companies from anti-trust regulations. He also said he favors taxing some employer-provided benefits, a proposal also opposed by labor.

Reid sought to assure the audience that the government could "get a hold of the deficit in a calm and deliberate way" and enact health care reform at the same time. With the rising cost of health care, including Medicare, the government must pass health legislation, he said.

On labor's No. 1 priority, a bill that would make it easier for workers to organize, Reid dodged. Asked if he supported a binding arbitration provision in the legislation, Reid said: "Arbitration is a word that has many variations, so we'll take a look at it."

Another core provision, which would allow workers to form a union through majority signup rather than go through a secret ballot election, has reportedly already been scrapped from the bill.

Regardless, Reid said it would be a while before Congress tackled the issue.

"We have too many things on our plate right now," he said.

Incoming AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told the Sun this week he expects Congress to pass both health care and labor law reform this year.

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