Reid to seize wheel after backseat role

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will take control of the healthcare debate in his chamber when Congress returns, attempting to move along legislation that stalled for months at the committee level.

Taking on a bigger role in the debate poses a political risk for Reid, but Democratic lobbyists and liberal activists say his leadership is essential for President Barack Obama’s signature domestic initiative to advance.

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It’s a big task, as public support for Democratic proposals has waned amid a blistering GOP attack in August. Reid may also find himself at odds with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is insisting that Congress pass reform that includes a government-run insurance option.

Reid’s job will be made easier by close cooperation with Obama, who served four years in the Senate under Reid’s leadership, and the strong bond he’s developed over the years with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Reid will meet with Obama and Pelosi at the White House on Tuesday to chart Democratic strategy.

“Reid has been quiet very intentionally and very strategically,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist working on healthcare reform. “He has said, ‘Committees are working on this; I’m going to follow their lead.’ As this debate comes to a head, he’s going to become very active and very engaged, both on the tactics and the shape of the policy.”

For weeks, Baucus has served as the Senate’s point man on healthcare. But his bipartisan talks have reached their final stage and a compromise among six negotiators on the Finance panel appears unlikely.

If Democrats pick up the support of one or two Republicans, it will likely happen during negotiations to create a floor bill. Reid will handle the job of merging legislation approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and the Finance Committee.

Perhaps sensing the passing of the momentum on healthcare reform to the leader’s office, Baucus circulated draft legislation among Finance negotiators during the Labor Day weekend. Some Democrats described the move as a final effort to forge a bipartisan compromise before legislation leaves his committee.

Reid now inherits the task of balancing the demands of Democratic liberals with the concerns of Democratic and Republican centrists who are needed to muster 60 votes.

Reid will also have to weigh the option of pushing for controversial reforms favored by most Democrats, such as setting up a government-run insurance program, and whether to use a budgetary maneuver to advance them. Budget reconciliation would allow Democrats to use a simple majority to pass the contentious proposals, but would lead to a bitter procedural fight with Republicans.

Reid also faces a potential battle with Pelosi, who declared last week that a bill without a strong public option would not pass the House. Reid must balance Pelosi’s position with those of centrists in his conference, such as Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who firmly oppose the public option.

Nevada Republicans are already taking shots at Reid. Robert Uithoven, a Nevada GOP consultant, said that “whatever bill ends up on President Obama’s desk will be pushed by Reid. If Nevadans view that bill negatively, it will be a hit on Reid’s poll numbers.”

Nevertheless, Reid is warming up to an expanded role in the healthcare debate. Before the August recess, he often declined to discuss his preferences with reporters in Washington. Back in Nevada, Reid has shared his views with constituents in recent days.

Reid has said he personally favors the public option, but unlike Pelosi, he has not threatened that reform would fail without it.

Instead, Reid has offered his views more softly, suggesting that Congress re-examine antitrust exemptions that the insurance industry has long operated under.

Reid has also hinted at his openness to reining in medical malpractice lawsuits, raising the idea of medical review boards that used to operate in Nevada to weed out frivolous lawsuits. That could win over some Republicans who have pressed for more tort reform in the healthcare overhaul.

Democratic aides say one of Reid’s greatest strengths is his relationships with centrist members of his conference.

Reid has withstood liberal criticism for protecting the interests of Democratic centrists, but that record could pay off on healthcare reform.

He’s worked hard to build a strong relationship with Baucus and appears to be taking a different approach with the Montana centrist from that of his predecessor. In 2002, then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) also felt pressure from liberals to wrest prescription drug legislation away from the Finance chairman.

Daschle caused an uproar by using a HELP Committee bill as the base and bypassing the Finance panel altogether. The legislation failed, and Democrats suffered an embarrassing defeat during an election year.

Reid plans a friendlier takeover of healthcare reform.

Reid earned Baucus’s appreciation by giving him extra time to forge a deal with Republicans. Now that the negotiations are falling short, Baucus has agreed to abide by the deadline and move forward without Grassley and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).

Once Finance approves a bill later this month with only Democratic votes and possibly the support of Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), Reid will merge it with the measure approved by the HELP Committee in July.

“At this point the Democrats are going to do a bill with the [Democratic] majority of the Finance Committee, either on their own or with Sen. Snowe,” said Richard Kirsch, the national campaign manager of Healthcare for America Now, a coalition of liberal and labor groups.

“Reid’s going to have the job of putting together the bill that passed the HELP Committee and the bill that emerges from the Finance Committee — that will mean we will have a strong policy role,” he said.