Harry Hamburg / associated press
Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009 | 2 a.m.
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Toward the end of summer, after the long, hot August protests in the health care debate, word leaked that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was working on his own health care bill.
True or not, it was a startling development for a majority leader who has taken great care — even pride — in deferring to his committee chairmen and giving them authority to develop big pieces of legislation on their own.
This style of Reid’s has infuriated those who want a stronger hand at the helm, someone who isn’t looking over his shoulder as a difficult 2010 reelection campaign approaches and who has no qualms about buttonholing colleagues and pushing legislation through — LBJ style.
Yet others see in Reid what Jim Kessler, vice president of policy of the centrist Third Way think tank, calls the “steady, invisible hand” guiding the debate.
Reid’s moderation in both policy and process has given his more conservative and centrist colleagues the breathing room needed to work through their positions, and is seen as creating a reservoir of goodwill he can call on when it’s time to cut the final deal.
Whether Reid’s style has set health care reform on a path toward victory or hobbled it for defeat will be known only as the great health care debate reaches its conclusion.
The Senate floor action that is scheduled to unfold later this month may be one of the greatest legislative spectacles of our times.
But one outcome is certain, if the landmark legislation accomplishes the health care reform that is President Barack Obama’s signature priority, the president will be credited with a victory that has eluded Democrats for generations.
If it fails, Reid will get much of the blame.
Princeton University Professor Julian Zelizer said the questions being raised over Reid’s style are the same “arguments against Reid since the Democrats took over in 2006.”
Can he bring his Democratic senators to vote together as one?
The morning after the 2004 election, when then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota lost his seat, Reid began calling fellow senators to secure their votes for him to take over.
Reid was the assistant leader at the time, the whip, and he knew his colleagues well from his long hours on the Senate floor. Some of his first phone calls were to the committee chairmen.
Reid pledged to them that he would run the Senate differently — he would defer to them to form legislation rather than shape it himself. He would respect the committee process.
As health care reform got under way this year, Reid had expected to rely on Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy at the Health Education and Labor Committee, a well-known deal maker, to take the lead and craft a bill that could win broad support.
But Kennedy’s declining health, and death this summer, shifted committee power to an unlikely new star of health care reform, Montana Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, whose slow and methodical attempt to deliver a bill that would bring Republicans on board infuriated liberals and was seen as a waste of time by those who wanted Democrats to flex their 60-seat majority and craft a bill to their liking.
Baucus blew one deadline after another for completing the draft this summer, with his hand-picked gang of six senators from both sides of the aisle. Congress recessed for August empty-handed and endured a long summer of attacks from Republicans, who made great strides in rousing public anger against the bill.
Some began to wonder: Where was Reid?
Reid did insert himself at one point in July, and word leaked of a testy meeting where he told Baucus to forget the Republicans and move on. Reid disregarded reports of the comments and said Republicans would remain at the table.
By the time senators were to return to Washington in September, word was out that Reid had been working on his own bill. This appears to have been more fiction than fact, perhaps a ruse to nudge Baucus along. No bill from Reid ever emerged, and Baucus hit his Sept. 15 deadline for delivering his product.
Critics say Reid could have avoided so much delay and the pain of August by simply laying out clear goals and pushing Baucus to meet them.
They point to Reid’s difficult reelection bid back home as a problem, making him hesitant to take bold, progressive positions Democrats want — such as an insistence on a public plan option — for fear of alienating moderate voters in the swing state of Nevada.
Progressive groups are trying to mount a television campaign against Reid in Nevada, and have threatened to work against his reelection — even if it means electing a Republican — unless Reid makes a push for the public option.
“They want Lyndon Johnson, not Harry Reid,” Zelizer said.
Yet even a leader with all the freedom and vision to point his senators to the mountaintop would still face the challenges Reid does leading his diverse caucus there.
The 60 Democratic senators have views that span the spectrum from liberal to conservative. Even more, the politically divisive atmosphere in Washington, what political scientists call hyper-partisanship, makes it unlikely to form the kind of cross-party coalitions that Lyndon Johnson used.
What’s more, senators have more independence today than they did during Johnson’s era, with their own campaign funds and political machines back home that make them less beholden to leadership in Washington, said Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
“I’m not sure a leader at this point will carry the weight where he can say there will be a public option, period,” Ornstein said. “It’s an educational experience for some of these Democrats. You have to go through this process.”
Senators on both flanks of the Democratic caucus see what Reid is up against.
Independent Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a committee chairman who opposes the public option, said if Reid had tried to push Baucus any harder, “it could have been chaos.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, among the more progressive Democratic members, said of his allies who wish the Senate majority leader were less Reid and more LBJ, “They wouldn’t have liked LBJ.”
Regardless, Reid’s style is not going to change on this bill, Brown said. “If it works in the end, you’ll say he did it masterfully.”