Friday, July 11, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The day before the Fourth of July, when he was back in Nevada, Sen. Harry Reid was counting votes for the Medicare bill. He hatched a plan that would stop even hardened hearts in this town.
The majority leader needed one more senator to go his way so Congress could stop an unintended 10 percent pay cut for doctors who deliver Medicare services, an issue that arises every year. Democrats and Republicans oppose the pay cut, but neither side had been able to prevent it.
A week earlier in the Senate, the bill had fallen just one vote short of the 60 needed to pass.
Reid had courted possible Republicans to switch, but getting no promises, “realized I had to try to do something.”
What Reid orchestrated was one of the most dramatic scenes on Capitol Hill in years — a clandestine plot that brought the triumphant return of Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Washington icon who is fighting terminal brain cancer, to the Senate floor for a decisive vote.
Stretched back in his office chair Thursday in the Capitol, Reid was on the telephone with Nevada reporters and health care professionals, telling the story of how it went down.
“They thought they had us beat until the last minute,” Reid said, cradling the phone to his ear the way he does with his thumb on the receiver and the rest of his hand across his forehead as if he has a big headache.
“They didn’t know I started working last Thursday in getting Sen. Kennedy here.”
Kennedy has been away from Washington since he was diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor. He is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation and had not been expected to return until September.
But Reid called Kennedy’s family and staff last week to test a change of plans.
Kennedy called Tuesday to say he would be there. On the day of the vote, Wednesday, he told Reid “he was on his way.”
The rest is well-known: Kennedy entered the Senate chamber to tearful applause. Not only did Kennedy vote yes, but nine Republicans switched their votes from the previous week and joined the prevailing team.
The bill that President Bush opposed now had a veto-proof majority in both the House and Senate.
(All of Nevada’s lawmakers in Washington except Republican Sen. John Ensign voted for the bill. Ensign and some Republicans also want to halt the doctors’ pay cut, but oppose paying for it by trimming insurance companies’ privately run Medicare program.)
One of those on the conference call asked Reid if Nevada’s senators were onboard.
“One of them is,” Reid said, smiling, referring to himself. The other “hasn’t voted accordingly. So you’ll have to check with him.”
Another asked about Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to the Republican lunch the day of the vote — and the pressure on Republicans.
Reid shared with them the response he got when he asked a Republican senator why Bush would veto the bill. He said the senator told him Bush had “checked out. Meaning that he’s only worried about himself and not them.”
The veto override remains dicey, Reid explained. He doubts Kennedy can make the return trip to Washington. “He’s not supposed to be flying, he’s not supposed to be around people, his immune system is down,” Reid said. “It would be next to impossible for him to come.”
Reid is working to retain the bill’s nine newfound supporters. His staff had been working intimately with health care groups over the past month to organize efforts. “We will see what pressure can be applied,” Reid said.
“I think it would make them look pretty foolish if they turn around and vote with the president,” he added. “That would be one of the top five ways to ruin a reelection.”
Later, after the conference call was over, Reid chuckled.
“Kept a secret though, didn’t I?”
Did he ever let on to the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, with whom he often speaks multiple times a day?
“Oh, no way,” Reid said. “I didn’t want him plotting against it.”
Republicans on the floor didn’t know what was happening until five minutes before the vote.
After Kennedy walked in with Reid, Sen. Barack Obama and others, there was so much attention that Kennedy “had forgotten to vote,” Reid said.
Reid said senators gathered around Kennedy said, “You got to vote, Ted.”
Kennedy looked toward the Senate clerk, walked up and delivered a loud “Aye!” Reid flashed the two thumbs up that Kennedy gave to the chamber.
The scene was so overwhelming, Reid can sum it up in a quip: For those few moments, “Obama was a nobody.”
The next day, before Reid talked to the group in Nevada, he called Kennedy. “He just laughed, I so felt good about it. I felt bad for him yesterday, because it was so hard for him to be here, but today I felt great.”