POLITICS
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

All Eyes Turn To Reid: Legacy In Balance As Health Care Debate Continues

With the Senate Finance Committee becoming the last of five congressional committees to pass health care reform legislation on Tuesday, the spotlight of the debate shifted sharply to the Majority Leader in the United States Senate.

Harry Reid (D-N.V.) is now, more than ever, the key force determining the prospects of comprehensive reform. His role in melding the divergent demands of members within his own caucus will produce taxing tests on his skills as a party leader and legislator.

But the steep challenge brings with it an alluring incentive. Should Reid prove successful in merging the Finance Committee and HELP Committee bills in the week ahead -- and should he do it while still holding on to the 60 votes needed to overcome legislative obstacles -- he will have permanently inscribed his name into the history books. Perhaps more than any sitting senator, Harry Reid's legacy hangs in the balance as Congress moves into the last stages of the health care reform debate.

Those close to the Nevada Democrat insist that he is uniquely suited for the task. A veteran of nearly four terms in the Senate, he is at his best, aides say, while "herding cattle" or keeping "the trains moving on time." His ability to hammer a legislative package through the Senate and into law often infuriates the progressive base that weeps for tougher, more principled, leadership. But it also endears him to those inside the Democratic caucus who appreciate the practitioner approach.

"They love him," said one high-ranking staffer, who has worked directly with Reid on reform. "He has a grip on them that is unbelievable. But this is a big moment for him. He has to hold the left and center. And then he was to worry about [Sen.] Olympia Snowe (R-ME). There is a lot at play."

Indeed, up to this point, Reid has navigated the health care reform debate by divorcing his personal preferences from his political judgments. Advisers say he still prefers a "public option" for insurance coverage. But he has never once drawn a "line in the sand" regarding the provision. Nor has he ruled out any alternative proposals, such as health insurance co-ops, that public option supporters oppose as ineffectual substitutes.

"Reid doesn't have the luxury that others do of making pronouncements without being able to back them up," said a senior Democratic aide involved in getting reform passed. "He has had to make sure that any deals made are actually going to get 60 votes."

On Tuesday, however, Reid's role changed from mere vote counter to primary author. The Majority Leader will meet as early as Wednesday with health committee chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to meld the health care bills from their respective committees. And as the three confer -- with a healthy dose of input from the Obama White House -- questions are buzzing up from the lips of political observers.

For starters, how can Reid keep liberal members on board a bill that is supported by conservative Democrats and even the lone Republican, Snowe?

Aides with knowledge of how the inter-Senate conference will be constructed insist that the process will be delicate and inclusive. Reid knows he can't bring centrists like Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) into the room for fear of angering progressives like Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.). But he can and will make sure that party members are informed of changes made to their preferred pieces of legislation. All told, the conference is expected to last through the week and, perhaps, into the next, after which the bill will be debated, amended, scored by the Congressional Budget Office and sent out for a vote.

"This is going to be a frustrating process for those looking for answers," said a White House aide. "CBO is going to have to weigh in here and there, and that takes time."

But will the public option survive?

This may be Reid's toughest task. Progressives long ago made clear that they would not settle for a bill without the provision -- whose inclusion, conversely, seems likely to cost the party several conservative members. As debate hits the eleventh hour, the fear within the party is that Reid's deference to Baucus during the Senate Finance Committee's process will carry over into the inter-party conference.

"He has a reputation for tending to be incredibly deferential to his chairman," said one senior Hill aide. "And I think there has been a concern about taking too soft an approach with Baucus over the period of the summer when frankly some Republicans who were never going to vote for the bill slowed the process down to great cost. So the question now is really, how hard is he going to be on Baucus so that the bill is going to look, frankly, more like Dodd's? ... People think Reid's heart is with the left on this. It's a question of how tough he's going to get."

Those close to Reid refuse to comment on how hard he will press for the public plan or any of the alternate proposals, such as a trigger system or an opt-out clause for states. Aides on the Hill suggest that he might punt on these decisions -- producing a bill out of the conference that doesn't include a public plan (or variation of one) but with promises to have a vote on the floor to add it as an amendment to the bill.

"It is unlikely that legislation provisions that didn't make it into one of two bills will come out of a merger," said a senior Democratic aide. "It is more likely they will come on the floor."

Should that be the case it will certainly anger some within the party, including Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) who urged Reid to include the public option in the merger during an appearance on the Rachel Maddow Show Tuesday night. "It is clearly the right thing to do from a policy perspective even if it is hard from a political perspective," explained Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist.

But it also would be quintessential Reid, refusing to weigh in directly on the key provision in favor of putting it to the ultimate litmus test -- a Republican filibuster.

Complicating the role that Reid plays throughout the process are the politics of his reelection. The Nevada Democrat is in serious trouble, with a new independent poll showing him with a measly 38 percent favorability rating in the state and trailing two unknown opponents.

"He is seen as Obama's guy in the Senate and he is," explained Stu Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report. "And the president is a polarizing figure. Some love him some hate him. And in the Mountain West there is a risk if you are looking like you are doing the party's business or Obama's business and not your constituents'. This is a problem for all majority leaders."

But it's not just an image problem Reid faces. The progressive community has also soured deeply on his leadership. The public option, for instance, is the preferred policy prescription of a vast majority of the party and even a plurality of the American public. Reid, however, has all but refused to press conservative caucus members to back the provision.

Reid allies say electoral politics are not on his mind when it comes to crafting health care reform. "You can't legislate scared," is a phrase offered by way of explaining the Senator's thinking.

But while he might not be frightened about the off-year elections, others in the party surely are. Passing health care reform, as Rothenberg posits, will invariable boost the position of Democrats as they enter 2010 -- providing them with a historical legislative achievement to which they can point. In turn, it may save their jobs as well as Reid's.

"Forget his obituary," said the one high-ranking staffer who has worked directly with Reid on reform. "Passing health care could determine his re-election. It's a written television ad ready for next year. If you are the guy who got reform through Congress, that's something to run on. And it's not too shabby."

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