Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press File
Wednesday, July 29, 2009 | 2 a.m.
A tried-and-true lesson in deal-making is a simple one: Don’t show your hand.
Keeping the cards close to the vest can be a strategy for playing poker, buying a car or, it turns out, running the U.S. Senate.
As Congress debates health care reform, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s deal-making skills are being tested. He rarely takes a public stand as details are being negotiated. This infuriates some, annoys others and, when his views shift, provides fodder for his opponents.
Reid tries to avoid that.
When asked Tuesday whether he would make a personal push in the health care bill for the so-called public plan, Reid took a pass.
“It would be really premature for me to lay out for each of you what I think should be in this bill,” Reid said during a news conference. “What I think should be in the bill is something that I will vote according to my conscience when it gets on the floor.”
The public plan is one of several contested provisions blocking Congress from reaching a deal.
More progressive members of Congress and their constituents insist a government-run option is necessary to foster competition with private insurers. But Republicans deride this as socialized health care, and some observers think that by eliminating it, a bipartisan bill could be crafted.
Reid’s reluctance has been typical of his tenure as leader. He is known for giving the committee chairmen in the Senate a long leash to craft legislation as they see fit. His role is to apply steady direction and finesse the final details.
Yet as leader, he finds his power not at the bully pulpit but, for example, by controlling the Senate floor schedule, which can make or break a bill’s fate through the timing as well as the amendments that are allowed or rejected.
Reid has enormous sway over the final product as legislation is often merged in closed meetings with companion bills in the House.
His backroom approach can be maddening, particularly to Reid’s detractors on the Democratic side who would prefer to see a more forceful leader, LBJ-style, pointing his troops to the top of the mountain and then marching them there.
Writing last month in the weekly paper City Life about Reid’s role, Las Vegas blogger Hugh Jackson said, “the Senate majority ‘leader’ has been conspicuously absent from the most consequential action facing Congress since it gave George W. Bush and Dick Cheney a blank check to invade and occupy Iraq for no ... good reason.
“Not only is Reid failing to whip his caucus into line, he is inviting Senate Democrats to roam if they want to.”
On the other side of the aisle, the Senate Republican campaign arm shot back Tuesday that Reid was equivocating on the public option, saying the majority leader had earlier made statements in support of it, but now was “unable to even articulate his own position on a key component” of the bill.
Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno, suggests Reid is merely refusing to tip his hand any further until the time has come to make a deal.
Much as President Barack Obama has kept mainly to broad themes of health care reform and left the details to Congress, Reid “doesn’t want to skew the public debate and put too much of his personal prestige into the debate too early,” Herzik said.
“Then it’s harder to deal,” he said. “Harry Reid’s about making the deal.”
But the question arises: This may be smart politics for sausage-making in the legislative factory on the Hill, but how does it play at home for Nevadans trying to understand their senator’s views?
Reid is up for reelection in 2010 and surely some residents back home are looking for signs of his position.
For example, where does Reid stand on the House’s proposal to pay for part of the bill by taxing upper-income households that earn more than $350,000 a year, a plan the Senate has largely refused?
Or what is his position on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plan to tax only millionaire households?
Reid’s office insists the senator’s reluctance to weigh in is not a problem back home, saying he speaks up when he feels strongly on an issue. Plus, his position gives him an unparalleled ability to ensure Nevada’s needs are being met as the final legislation is formed.
Nevada has a higher rate of uninsured residents than most other states, with nearly one in five Nevadans going without health insurance — some 500,000 people, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s statehealthfacts.org.
Herzik said Reid’s recalcitrant stance can both help him and hurt him — depending on whether Nevada voters view him as a leader who sealed the deal or an elected official whose views shifted.
“A big part of the electorate says, ‘That’s exactly what I like in a politician,’ and a big part says, ‘That’s exactly what I don’t like,’ ” Herzik said. “His supporters will give him the benefit of the doubt. His detractors will call him shifty Harry Reid.”
But sometimes, Reid tips his hand just so.
The newspaper Roll Call this month reported that Reid had told his point person, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, that doing away with the public option and taxing employer-sponsored health care benefits to bring Republicans on board wouldn’t be worth the loss of Democratic support.
A Democratic source confirmed that Reid asked Baucus to consider funding options aside from taxing benefits.
When asked Tuesday about the public plan, Reid’s true feeling may have been discernible between the lines.
“I have a responsibility to get a bill on the Senate floor that will get 60 votes that we can proceed to. That’s my No. 1 responsibility. There are times when I have to set aside my personal preferences.”