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September 2, 2014

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LETTER FROM WASHINGTON:

Harry Reid’s hopes hitched to health care reform bill

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AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., center left, gets a hug by Sen. Jay Rockefeller D-W.Va, as Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., left and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., right, looks on after the U.S. Senate voted to begin debate on legislation for a broad health care overhaul at Capitol Hill in Washington on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2009.

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

You would have thought they were rock stars, not graying politicians, the way Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his top lieutenants were welcomed at a Senate reception the day after Reid’s health care bill was introduced.

Thunderous cheers broke out. In speech after speech, Reid was lauded by his colleagues, who described him in turns as the impresario, the fighter and the chef who broke a few eggs to make a fantastic omelet.

But for the lack of a few campaign posters, the rally for the health care bill was as much a day of stump speeches for Democrats who seemed to get their mojo back as it was a campaign stop for Reid’s reelection back home.

Indeed, the unveiling of the historic bill and Reid’s prospects for another term are now inextricably linked. For better or worse, the arrival of the Reid health care bill affixed the majority leader’s name to President Barack Obama’s top domestic policy priority.

Never before in the majority leader’s 25 years in Congress has Reid taken this level of ownership of such a significant piece of legislation.

Now that Reid owns it, will his name on this massive restructuring of domestic policy help his sagging popularity in Nevada? Or will the bill do him more harm than good among the state’s independent voters, who will likely decide his difficult 2010 reelection bid?

“This is the high point for him,” said one senior Republican aide after the Democrats’ jubilant rally. “If he doesn’t get it passed it’s a huge hit to his reputation. If it passes, independents are irritated, aggravated and ready to vote.”

Despite bringing more federal money to the state than any other lawmaker, Reid has come to be known in Nevada as one who opposes rather than one who creates.

He was the public face of Democratic opposition during the final years of former President George W. Bush’s administration, a job that left many independent-minded Nevadans soured on the partisan elbows their senator developed. Reid has been the leading voice on the state’s opposition to Yucca Mountain, the long-planned nuclear waste repository in the desert outside of Las Vegas.

On the health care legislation, Reid chose early on to claim the bill as his own, after taking it upon himself to forge the legislation from two Senate bills behind closed doors in his second-floor Capitol office.

Reid’s colleagues believe momentum is now on their side after weeks of deliberation and delays. Reid noted that Democrats since Harry Truman, 60 years ago, have fought for such a bill.

“Moments like this don’t happen accidentally or miraculously,” said Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, who also faces a tough reelection campaign. “It takes a leader who does not bow.”

Nevadans, though, may be a tougher sell. Nevada voters, like those across America, generally tell pollsters they want health care reform, according to polling done in the state.

But like the rest of Americans, they split on the details. One poll shows a slim majority, 52 percent, favor the public option.

Reid has carved a bill that mostly pleases the Democratic base, which reflects the majority of his caucus in the Senate even though that might not match voters’ views back home. No Republicans have indicated support for the Senate bill.

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, among the chamber’s progressive leaders, said that after the New Deal and the Fair Deal, signature Democratic policies of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, this bill is “a Good Deal for the American People.”

Reid can be seen as smart for wooing the Democratic base, as his popularity among Nevada’s Democrats is so low that in one poll solid majorities could not say whether they would vote for him. Losing the base would be a particularly tough loss for Reid’s operation, which was responsible for registering 100,000 new Democrats in Nevada for the 2008 election and helping to send Obama to the White House.

“All these newly fired up Democrats Reid talks about in Nevada” aren’t that motivated, said Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

The political challenge will be for Reid to inspire these core Democrats back home without alienating the state’s independents.

Independent voters in Nevada broke for Obama in 2008 but are now shifting in other states to Republicans, polls show. Republican victories over Democrats in the New Jersey and Virginia governors’ races this month gave Democrats a start.

“All evidence points to the fact that they’re not with them in 2009 and health care is the reason they’re not with them,” Duffy said.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who heads his party’s 2010 campaign efforts in the Senate, sees no electoral good for Reid coming from his ownership of this bill.

“What’s he going to run on — raising premiums on people that have insurance? Raising taxes on small business during a recession? Or is he going to run on cutting Medicare?” Cornyn said, citing key points of Republican opposition to the legislation.

“I don’t see how any of this puts him in a better situation,” Cornyn said. “I think it puts him in a worse.”

Even standing beside Obama as the still-popular president signs a bill into law at the end of this grueling process may not be enough for Reid’s campaign, the Republican leader said.

“It didn’t help Jon Corzine,” he said, referring to the New Jersey governor who was unseated this month. “You can see independent voters fleeing some of these policies ... And Harry’s starting with his numbers down in the basement. I don’t see how he rides that rocket off to a winning position.”

As his colleagues waxed on about his leadership skills at last week’s rally, Reid hung his head as he often does while being praised, appearing to be uncomfortable with the limelight.

Harkin said the health care battle should be the next chapter in Reid’s autobiography, “The Good Fight,” because “this is another good fight you’re leading.”

“Harry Reid had to fight great political forces and the Senate rules to bring us to this moment,” said Richard Durbin of Illinois, the assistant majority leader.

New York Sen. Charles Schumer called the majority leader “the great impresario, the great chef.”

In Nevada, Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Reid’s ownership of such a major piece of national legislation is a risk, “but his alternative is worse.”

Herzik cited Bill Clinton’s theory — that it’s better for Democrats, and Reid, to pass something on health care rather than nothing.

Herzik believes Nevada’s independents and moderates will ultimately embrace Reid’s position if the bill passes, because most Nevadans want health care reform. He also thinks independents will be impressed if Reid can accomplish such a difficult goal.

But between now and then is a political lifetime.

“It’s a gamble,” Herzik said. “He has ownership of this bill and this process. That seems to be his campaign style: I’m the guy who get things done.”

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