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September 30, 2014

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Long-sought, Harry Reid’s goal of health care reform a step closer

Senate Majority Leader drew cheers with a tightrope act

The truck parked outside the Capitol on Wednesday morning signaled that the moment had arrived.

After weeks of crafting the Senate health care bill behind closed doors, adding and subtracting elements for budget analysts, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would finally unveil the legislation.

The calendar all but demanded it: Senate rules require 30 hours of debate before the chamber can vote on a motion to proceed to bring the bill to the floor. If Reid had any hope of voting by Saturday, as he did, he must introduce the bill now.

Nevada’s senior senator is not much of a policy wonk. For all his years in the Senate, he is not the kind of lawmaker who dwells in the details. If anything, he is more a student of people — someone who studies what it will take to meet each senator’s needs to cut a deal.

Reid spoke to President Barack Obama on Sunday, and they had decided the moment was about to arrive. They agreed to send reinforcements to the Senate to make it so.

The large, black truck was part of a motorcade of sleek vehicles that brought Vice President Joseph Biden to the Capitol on Wednesday morning. The vice president, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Tom Daschle — former senators all — arrived to speak the language of their colleagues.

The three huddled in Reid’s second-floor office for nearly an hour. Biden left and set up in the suite the Senate reserves for his visits, and Salazar fanned out to meet with senators.

The capital watched and waited.

Behind the closed doors of Reid’s office, the majority leader nudged the three senators who have continued to express reservations about moving forward with the bill — Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Reid needs the support of all 60 senators to proceed to the bill and begin the floor debate that will last for weeks, possibly until Christmas.

Nelson left the 30-minute meeting noncommittal. Landrieu emerged with a slightly softened position, saying Reid assured her that if she agreed to advance the bill, “there would be opportunities for amendments and improvements.” She will make a decision once she has reviewed the legislation. Lincoln wasn’t easily found.

The afternoon dragged on.

More than three weeks ago, Reid announced he had sent a draft bill to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office for the financial analysis, which can be a seal of approval or a kiss of death for legislation. For weeks, Reid and the budget office’s director have been on the phone, with Reid adding here, subtracting there, to reach Obama’s goal of a bill costing less than $900 billion.

Finally, late in the afternoon, an aide emerged from Senate Democratic leadership offices with the preliminary assessment: The bill weighed in at $849 billion over 10 years, would cover 31 million uninsured and cut the federal budget deficit by $127 billion.

Senators began filing into the Capitol. Reid had called a 5 p.m. private meeting to unveil the bill.

Behind the closed doors of the stately Lyndon B. Johnson meeting room, Democratic senators took their seats. A big-screen TV monitor was set for the PowerPoint presentation. The title page read, “Health Insurance Reform, Highlights of Merged Senate Democratic Bill.”

Reid left the Senate chamber for the short walk across the hall. Once inside the private meeting, Reid’s top policy aide unveiled his plan: The familiar elements of health care reform Democrats have been promoting, from changes that would prohibit companies denying coverage for preexisting conditions, to a new public option for the uninsured.

Reid engineered slightly new ways to pay for the bill — including a certain-to-be-controversial new 5 percent tax on elective cosmetic surgery, among others.

Senators asked questions and made speeches.

Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd reminded senators of this place in history. Democrats have tried and failed to pass health care reform for generations. Dodd asked them to remember their champion on this issue, former Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who died this year.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who took over for Kennedy on the health committee, urged his colleagues to stick together on what for some is a difficult vote.

The sound of applause could be heard down the hall. The cheers were twofold: Once for Reid and another for the health policy staff.

“It’s clear this is the bill we have been fighting for,” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, among the chamber’s more liberal members, said afterward.

Reid and his leadership team appeared at a late-evening news conference where he told the story of a family in Searchlight he hopes can be helped with better insurance coverage through this bill.

A television in the background was accidentally left on, playing a Wal-Mart commercial, and then a news report on obesity, with a mustachioed man taking a bite of a greasy meal. No one seemed to notice.

Within minutes Republican Senate leaders would begin their assault against the “$1 trillion experiment.” It “is not what Americans bargained for,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

Reid took a few questions but left the details to staff.

“The finish line is really in sight,” Reid said, before hugging his fellow senators and walking back to his office.

There, at 7 p.m., he closed the door on a capital consumed by health care and began a tele-town hall conference with Nevadans on education.

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