Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- Obama welcomes ‘historic’ health care advance (12-21-09)
- Jim Gibbons attacks Harry Reid on health care bill (12-21-09)
- Health care bill clears tough Senate test (12-20-2009)
- Health care compromise gives sweet Medicaid deal to Nebraska (12-20-2009)
One by one, senators cast their votes in the earliest hours of Monday on landmark health care legislation.
When the roll call came to his name, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stood by his desk in his sober brown suit, cast his aye and sat down. A very slight smile crossed his face.
The majority leader has been second-guessed at every step during the months-long, painstaking process of advancing President Barack Obama’s domestic priority. Critics have said Reid was moving too slowly, too quickly, without enough vision, without leadership.
Hours earlier, a top Democratic Party leader, Howard Dean, criticized the “unseemly scrambling” to secure votes.
But Reid’s ability to assemble the 60-vote supermajority — through a combination of gentle arm-twisting and old-fashioned pork-barrel politics — to propel the legislation toward passage by Christmas will forever alter political perceptions of the Nevadan.
“The much-pilloried Harry Reid led an increasingly undemocratic and dysfunctional institution to a stunning victory for the majority party,” Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in Politico hours before the vote.
Mann, co-author of “The Broken Branch,” a landmark examination of Congress, said many prominent Washingtonians owe Reid an apology.
Just before the vote, Reid delivered a carefully crafted speech about the lives that would be touched by health care reform. He singled out families from Nevada: Lisa from Gardnerville, who postpones her visits to the doctor so her child can go; Caleb from Sparks, a teenager who needs prosthetic legs that fit; Mike from Mesquite, who cannot afford his son’s medical care.
He nearly put the Senate to sleep.
In contrast, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, gave a rousing speech full of political verve as the 1 a.m. vote neared — punctuating his closing line by turning to the Democratic side of the aisle and pointing his finger as he searched for the one vote he needed to stop the bill.
“All it takes is one, just one,” McConnell said, breathing life into the late hour. “One can stop it or every single one will own it.”
Reid has never been known as an inspiring public speaker. What Reid has always excelled at is cutting the deal.
And the deal he struck on health care will be one for the history books: Reid was able to persuade his liberal majority to abandon its longed-for public option in favor of a less aggressive menu of new private insurance offerings for 30 million people without coverage.
He sweetened the pot with $100 million-plus handouts to holdout senators from Louisiana, Nebraska, Vermont, Massachusetts and other states.
“Sleazy,” Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of North Carolina decried. Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma called the deal-making “corrupt.”
Republicans hurled criticisms for hours, adding to the hyperpartisan atmosphere that has filled the Senate floor.
But for all those Democrats who wanted a strong majority leader, reminiscent of Lyndon B. Johnson’s time as “Master of the Senate,” as biographer Robert Caro called him, this was their moment.
Professor Julian Zelizer, a congressional scholar and professor of history and public policy at Princeton University, called Reid’s performance “very Johnsonian.”
“When he was the majority leader, Johnson constantly forced liberals to compromise, warning them to take what was possible rather than the perfect or to lose everything,” Zelizer said Monday. “He also used legislative pork as a way to build coalitions that included legislators otherwise unwilling to support the bill.”
Reid himself has made no apologies for doing what he believes it takes to set the bill on a course toward passage.
When pressed Monday, Reid laid bare the raw power that exerts itself in Washington, saying every senator should have something in the bill to make him or her proud.
“If they don’t have something in it that’s important to them, it doesn’t speak well of them,” Reid said. “It’s not different from other pieces of legislation — large pieces and small pieces. We work compromises. That’s what legislation is all about — the art of compromise.”
As Reid approaches his own 2010 re-election campaign, he will be irrevocably linked to health care reform, a position which may help or hurt him in Nevada.
It was often thought that if Reid succeeded in passing the bill, part of which now carries his name, Obama would enjoy the credit. If Reid failed, he would be one to blame.
But it is clear that if the bill emerges from the Senate, survives a merger with the House and lands on Obama’s desk in the new year, Reid, in fact, will share credit for passing the most significant domestic policy since Medicare a generation ago.
Whether that leadership power hurts or helps Reid in Nevada remains to be seen. Nevadans are mixed on health care reform — saying they do not like the bill but want changes to health care.
Republican critics at home complain that Reid has not used his skills to do enough for the recession-weary state.
But others think Nevada voters will like the legislation once the details become known — the insurance reforms and new coverage options — and Reid will be seen as the leader who made it possible.
In Washington, many know of Reid’s past as an amateur boxer and reference it in describing the verbal punches he throws during debates.
But perhaps Reid’s long hauls as a former marathon runner are a more apt metaphor for this endeavor. Success takes training and stamina, but also sheer stubbornness not to stop.
Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democratic leader, said Monday’s vote was “a total vindication of Harry Reid’s strategy.”
Schumer called it Reid’s “appeal to the higher angels.”
“The strategy was basically to do everything he could first to make sure the left and our party base saw we would do everything we could, as we tried, and then to get every other member to go on board,” Schumer said. “What Harry did was he appealed to every member to work for the common good — the common good for our caucus, the Senate and our country above all. That’s what he did. I saw it. I saw it with members who were wavering at the very end.”
In a note to Nevadans on Monday, Reid said he would continue to press for the bill’s final passage.
“Our state needs this bill more than almost any other state,” Reid said. “I refuse to sit back and do nothing.”