Reid's Fate Tied to Health Bill, Same as Obama

Washington Matters

Reid's Fate Tied to Health Bill, Same as Obama

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has the biggest test of his political career at his doorstep. Carefully merging, crafting and shepherding health care legislation through the Senate and holding together 60 votes, the current size of the Democratic caucus and the minimum needed to prevail on procedural votes, will be like herding cats, as Trent Lott famously said. If Reid can't deliver, he could be in as much political peril as President Obama may be. 

An ultimate failure -- even if a narrow rejection -- at the hand of the Democratic-run Senate would be crushing to Reid and to Obama and, for that matter, the Democratic party. There would be a sea of criticism from the Democratic faithful -- from liberals to moderates and party conservatives -- followed by a crisis in confidence about the party's ability to deliver on major health care and other reforms central to its agenda.

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Reid, because of his leadership post, would come off looking ineffective at the one time Obama needs him the most. Many Republicans, who have had some success in putting Democrats on the defensive over a large and complex health care reform plan, would relish nothing more, and GOP prospects for gains in the 2010 midterms would get some high-octane gas.

Count on some old-fashioned arm twisting as Reid tries to avoid that fate. His leadership style and personality is not that of strong-armed intimidation or whip cracking like when Lyndon Johnson was majority leader, but he's not about to let the legislation fail because of one or two obstinate objectors in the Democratic caucus.  He also has to worry about whether 91-year-old Robert Byrd, W.Va., who is in long-ailing health, will be able to participate at all.

He'll walk a careful line, trying to win commitments from centrist, conservative-leaning Democrats, such as Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. At the same time Reid has to assuage more liberal members holding out for a large public insurance provider option. Even if only a few liberals band together, they could sink the measure altogether, arguing Congress should just start over and not cave to the powerful insurance lobbies. In this group of left-of-center Democrats are Pat Leahy and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Tom Harkin, Iowa, Sherrod Brown, Ohio, and John Rockefeller, West Virginia. 

And then Reid also has to do some tough outreach with a small group of moderate Republicans who may end up throwing him a lifeline and supporting a version of the more centrist Finance Committee legislation if amended on the floor. This very small group includes Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and possibly retiring Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio.

Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin, Illinois, will tag team the effort to keep their members on board. If pressed to, they'll play hardball with their own, threatening for instance to take away chairmanships for some who might vote against final passage. Lincoln is the new chairman of the Agriculture Committee; Harkin has replaced the late Sen. Kennedy at the helm of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel; Rockefeller chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation panel; Leahy is Judiciary Chair; Pryor has two subcommittee chairmanships on the Commerce and Homeland Security panels. Also putting pressure on any who balk will be Vice President Joe Biden, who will use some increasingly hardball tactics, too, as needed, even with old colleagues. And, of course, expect Obama to do plenty of heavy lifting.

Reid could also threaten loss of party funding for what might be tight reelection campaigns of fence sitters in his caucus. And on the Appropriations Committee, Durbin could easily strip out funding for favorite projects of Democrats who stay on the fence.

Reid may also see lasting ripple effects from this epic health care debate in his own reelection effort. He has a history of narrow election wins in Nevada, and he might face a tough Republican challenger in his state.

As majority leader, Reid often has to appear sharply partisan and even confrontational. That may not sit just well with some in his more conservative trending home state. The field of potential challengers to Reid in Nevada is weak for now, but that could easily change if he emerges from this health care battle bruised and beaten. He's already been raising lots of money to ward off serious challengers. That election test will come next year. This fall's legislative test is Reid's entire focus for now.