Las Vegas Sun

February 28, 2024

Harry Reid’s next health care test: Securing 60 votes

Reid’s now a hero of the left for backing the public option, but his work isn’t done

Reid introduces public option

Beyond the Sun

In the 10 minutes it took for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to outline his proposal for including a public option in the health care bill, the Nevadan went from being the political left’s punching bag for failing to lead on perhaps the biggest issue of his career to its celebrated champion of health care reform.

The accolades rang all afternoon, and by Tuesday morning the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada was collecting signatures in an online petition thanking Reid “for standing with all of us.”

Some see Reid’s move as a cynical ploy to get the left off his back and shore up his base in advance of a difficult 2010 reelection bid. Even if it doesn’t succeed, at least he can say he tried to pass a public option, which is the left’s top priority in the health care debate.

Though there may be some truth to that, others believe Reid also understood that public opinion both in Nevada and among Senate Democrats is on his side.

The majority of Americans — and slightly more than half of Nevadans, including 55 percent of the state’s coveted independents — support a government-run insurance plan as an alternative to private insurance, polls show. In other words, not only progressives but also ordinary Americans and Nevadans want the public option, the polls say.

Reid’s move did get the liberals temporarily off his back — they’re now targeting the White House, which they see as too reluctant in pushing its preferences on health care. One group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which hammered Reid with TV ads last week in Nevada asking whether he was tough enough to support the public option, will have a new ad on air today in Maine urging President Barack Obama to step up with support.

But that doesn’t mean Reid is home free. He still must deliver the 60 votes needed to move debate forward on the bill — votes he thinks he will have when needed but has not yet fully locked up.

If Reid fails to deliver, not only will the majority leader be criticized for botching an issue that will help define his legacy, “it’ll be disastrous for the Democratic Party,” said Richard Kirsch, campaign manager of Health Care for Americans Now, an umbrella organization of dozens of groups advocating for reform.

“There’s no show in this,” Kirsch said. “He’s put himself totally on the line here. He’s put his leadership on the line, his authority on the line.”

The Republican campaign committee in the Senate seized on the liberal love-fest to argue that Reid is out of touch with his home state.

Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Reid “consistently pays more attention to the liberal special interests in Washington than to the interests of his constituents in Nevada.”

Yet from a purely political standpoint, Republicans in Nevada are overwhelmingly against Reid, and it is unlikely he would win their support by ditching health care reform. If anything, Reid needs to energize his Democratic base, which has been lukewarm to his reelection, and attract independents.

In Reid’s plan to include the public option would be a provision that would allow states to opt out if they prefer not to give their residents the chance to buy insurance from the government-run plan.

That provision, the brainchild of Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, is considered a potentially shrewd compromise that could woo conservative Democrats who oppose the public option by shifting the decision on participation to the states.

When Reid told the White House of his intentions last week, Obama let it be known that he preferred keeping at least one Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, on board in the spirit of bipartisanship, sources said. Obama preferred Snowe’s idea for a trigger that would launch the public option if private insurers did not make insurance more affordable — a proposal rejected by the left. But Obama did not, and does not, oppose what Reid is doing, a source said.

Now, with no Republicans apparently willing to back the bill, Reid’s ability to raise the 60 votes will test the majority leader’s skill at cutting deals and drawing on his personal relationships to keep his caucus together.

In this area, Reid is seeing successes and setbacks.

For example, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, a centrist Democrat, said Tuesday he was more willing to cast a procedural vote on Reid’s plan after the majority leader gave him assurances recently that a proposed tax on medical device makers, which the Indianan believes is too heavy, would be reworked.

However, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut who has said for weeks that he would not vote to close debate to allow a vote on the bill if it had a public option, maintained his stance on Tuesday.

Reid brushed off Lieberman’s opposition, saying he and Lieberman have a long history of working together. What went unsaid was that Lieberman owes his committee chairmanship to Reid after the majority leader declined to punish him — as some Democrats wanted — for his support of Republican Sen. John McCain in last year’s presidential election. One group has suggested that Reid threaten to take away that chairmanship unless Lieberman votes yes, something Reid is unlikely to do.

“Joe Lieberman,” Reid quipped on Tuesday, “is the least of Harry Reid’s problems.”

How Reid corrals and cajoles his senators will be the backroom intrigue of the next several days as Washington watches and waits.

Some may think Reid is simply giving liberals the vote they want, and can fall back on the more conservative trigger option as a backup plan if he cannot secure the votes, but others are not so sure. “He is playing to win,” one Democratic source said.

Bob Fulkerson, state director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said if Reid is unable to seal the deal and the Senate resorts to the trigger mechanism in the public option offered by Snowe, “that would be a profound letdown.”

“Expectations have been raised now,” Fulkerson said. “Nevadans really want this and Senator Reid knows he has to deliver for Nevada.”