By Alexander Bolton - 12/21/09 08:23 AM EST
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) scored the biggest victory of his tenure as
Senate Democratic leader early Monday when every member of his caucus
voted to advance the Senate healthcare bill.
Had the bill derailed, it would have proved a major embarrassment for the leader, a setback drawing intense media scrutiny over the holiday.
Just before the pivotal vote, Reid downplayed its political significance and emphasized the impact on the lives of ordinary people who earn modest incomes and struggle with health problems.
“This isn’t about partisanship or procedure. It’s not about politics, and it’s not about polling,” Reid said.
“It is about people. It’s about life and death in America. It’s about human suffering. And given the chance to relieve this suffering, we must,” he said.
The route to the 1 a.m. vote, which took place with solemn ceremony as Reid requested that weary lawmakers vote at their desks, was not a smooth one.
Reid came under withering criticism not only from GOP colleagues but also from prominent liberal leaders and activists who questioned his leadership and even called for defeat of the legislation.
In October, Markos Moulitsas, a well-known liberal blogger and contributor to The Hill, accused Reid of abdicating his leadership role because of his “inability to keep his caucus together” and suggested that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) would be more effective.
But Monday’s vote showed that Reid did just what his critics said he could not. He kept all of his Democratic colleagues together, even though he had to make compromises that many disliked.
“It’s a total vindication of Harry Reid’s strategy, which, believe me, he had on track all along,” said Schumer.
The leader spent weeks courting wary centrists who drove a hard bargain by demanding that he drop a proposal to set up a government-run insurance program and place strict cost curbs on the legislation.
As centrists kept making new demands, Reid had to withstand the grumbling of liberal colleagues who complained that a few centrists were exercising disproportionate influence.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) declared he was “very disappointed” after Reid announced last week the bill would not include a government-run insurance program or a proposal to allow people as young as 55 to buy Medicare coverage.
Schumer said the negotiations followed a plan that Reid laid out from the start.
“The strategy was basically to do everything he could first to make sure the left and our party base saw we did everything we could,” said Schumer, who led negotiations on behalf of liberals to set up a public option.
Reid became the Senate’s point man on healthcare reform in mid-October, when he took on the role of merging legislation passed out of the Senate Finance and Health committees.
Reid crafted a bill that he knew Senate liberals would find more pleasing than the centrists would, most notably by including a government-run health insurance program even though it lacked the necessary votes.
Then Reid methodically made concessions to win centrists’ support — most dramatically, he discarded the public option and the Medicare buy-in. Although liberals such as Brown gnashed their teeth over these concessions, the protracted negotiations demonstrated they were necessary to get 60 votes.
The strategy ultimately worked because liberals were convinced that the bill was the best measure they could get passed.
In the end, liberals such as Brown and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) joined forces with centrists such as Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).
In a statement Sunday, Feingold, whose support was uncertain until the final hours, applauded the legislation:
“While the loss of the public option is a bitter pill to swallow, on balance, the bill still delivers meaningful reform,” he said. “This bill significantly expands coverage and helps protect Wisconsinites from high costs and insurance company abuses, such as denying or restricting coverage based on pre-existing conditions.”
Lincoln, who met frequently with Reid to rework legislative details, said the bill was not one she would have written. Nevertheless, she declared Sunday it would “offer families more stability” and “reassure our small businesses and the self-employed that health insurance companies will no longer dictate their bottom lines.”
Reid scheduled several special meetings of the Democratic Conference to rally colleagues to support the legislation, despite their early misgivings.
One such pivotal meeting occurred on Monday of last week, when Reid told colleagues that he would strip the Medicare buy-in proposal that had been intended to replace the public option.
“He reminded everyone what was at stake and that failure was not an option,” said a Democratic aide familiar with the meeting.
Reid reminded his colleagues of Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) comments during a conference call with conservatives in July: that if Republicans defeated healthcare reform, it would be President Barack Obama’s Waterloo.
Few know this as well as Reid, who himself faces a difficult reelection fight next year.
Jon Ralston, a prominent Nevada political expert, said the failure to pass healthcare reform through the Senate would have inflicted a serious blow to Reid’s reelection efforts.
Ralston said Monday’s successful vote to end the GOP filibuster “avoided what would have been a devastating loss to his campaign."
“He needed to get a bill or it would have undermined his entire reelection campaign, which is based on the message: ‘I’m a very effective guy in Washington,’ ” Ralston said.
Reid, who has struggled with public approval ratings of around 40 percent, has already run television ads touting his effectiveness as a legislator and ability to deliver for Nevada.
But Schumer said Reid’s most effective argument with colleagues was to call on them to work for the greater good of the country.
“What Harry did, he appealed to every member to work for the common good, the common good of our caucus, the Senate and the country, above all,” said Schumer. “The appeal to the higher angels worked; people don’t think that it does, but it did.”
Reid laid the groundwork for Monday’s vote for months, if not years. It could be argued that Democrats would not have reached 60 votes if not for two of Reid’s most controversial leadership decisions.
First was Reid’s decision, ratified by the rest of the Democratic Conference, to let Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee.
Second was Reid’s behind-the-scenes effort to recruit Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) to the Democratic Party. Several senior Senate Democrats criticized the deal Reid made to woo Specter.
On Monday, the healthcare bill would not have advanced without the votes of Lieberman and Specter, leaving observers to wonder how Lieberman might have voted if he lost his gavel and decided to caucus with Republicans or how Specter would have voted if still a Republican.
Reid did not have a single GOP vote to work with as a result of the thorough job Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did to keep his own conference unified.
At times, Reid could barely contain his frustration with Republicans, who employed seldom-used tactics, such as forcing clerks to read aloud hundreds of pages of legislative text, to delay the bill.
After the clerk read aloud the final tally on the historic vote, Democrats congratulated their leader, patting him on the back and embracing him.
Slightly wobbly on his feet, like a boxer who had just won a 12-round decision, Reid squeezed the arm of 92-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) as Byrd rolled by in a wheelchair. The leader then hugged Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and shared jokes with Sens. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) and Lincoln, prompting hearty laughs from two lawmakers who threatened to vote against the bill until the final days.
“I think he’s exhausted,” Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said.