Harry Reid sealed the biggest legislative victory of his career Saturday night with a kiss. And then a hug.
Emotionally reserved doesn't begin to describe the Senate majority leader, a Democrat facing reelection in Nevada. Yet the man was beaming as the members of his caucus left the Senate floor, each one of them having given him their support, leaving him with exactly the 60 votes he needed to overcome a filibuster and move to an official floor debate on landmark health care reform legislation.
Three of those votes had been uncertain up until the last two days. Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) waited until floor speeches on Saturday to announce that they'd back the motion to proceed, which allows the bill to move a major step forward. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) broke what little suspense there was about his vote on Friday.
Reid approached Landrieu after the vote, smiling ear to ear. He locked arms with her, gripping her right elbow as she locked his right arm in return. After the two spoke, he grasped her hand with both of his, leaned over and laid a kiss on it.
From there, he trod up the floor's risers to find Lincoln in the back row where she'd been sitting with Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). Reid smiled broadly and put his two hands on her shoulders, which is typically what counts as a hug from Harry Reid. Then he went all in, wrapping her in a full embrace.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) followed Reid's lead, smothering Lincoln with both arms. Lincoln blushed as she emerged from his embrace.
Reid left the floor to speak on the phone to Ted Kennedy's widow Vicki in the Democratic cloak room; she was crying and deeply moved, he later said. As Reid returned to the floor and headed for the exit to speak to reporters, he spied Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who had shepherded the reform bill through the health committee in Kennedy's absence. Reid laid a hug on him, too.
Nelson was not gifted with such affection, though he had only himself to blame: as soon as the vote ended, he headed for the GOP side to chat up arch-conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
Reid's effusive display of gratitude followed a unusually somber, silent vote. Normally, senators approach the front desk to cast their vote and chat amongst themselves. This night, each voted from his or her seat as the chamber sat in dead, eerie silence.
"I mean, it was sort of like a European parliamentary summit or something -- but it was worth it," remarked Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who also suggested it felt like "somebody was getting impeached."
As the roll was called, senators stood and announced either "aye" or "nay." It was too much for John McCain.
"Ooooh, this is soooo tense," the Arizona Republican could be heard stage-whispering.
Nelson was seated as the roll was called and unceremoniously declared his yes vote. Landrieu and Lincoln, however, were absent at the start, as was Sen. Bob Byrd (D-W.Va.), the 92-year-old who this week became the longest-serving senator in the history of the upper chamber.
His presence is never assured at votes,so his absence added an element of real suspense, McCain's mocking notwithstanding. A few minutes into the vote, Byrd was wheeled in and pointed to the sky, signaling an "aye." He pulled in next to Reid. Reid grasped Byrd's hand with both of his.
Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), whose vote would have made the bill bipartisan just a few months ago, rose to his feet and strode over to Byrd to shake the former majority leader's hand.
Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), whose route to the Senate took him through an Illinois impeachment hearing and a Senate ethics panel, stood to vote aye and, after retaking his seat, backhand slapped Joe Lieberman on his arm and flashed a wide grin. Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, had voted yes as well, but is still threatening not to join a GOP filibuster on the final bill if it includes a public health insurance option.
Lieberman smiled and the two shook hands heartily. Just moments later, however, he rose from his chair and fled, finding more comfortable ground next to Lincoln. The two holdouts batted each others' arms and exchanged chuckles.
When the vote tally was called in the House exactly two weeks ago, the Democratic caucus erupted in celebration. The Senate is not that sort of place. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), as presiding officer, announced the final 60-39 vote and scattered, muted "yay"s rose from the Democratic side, as the victors seemed unsure what to do. Only Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) could be seen clapping; a few tourists in the gallery booed at the chamber.
(The one absentee senator was Republican George Voinovich of Ohio. Brown told reporters that his fellow state lawmaker had decided to attend a celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of his Cleveland mayoral election instead.)
Outside the chamber, the volume was turned up.
"It's an historic vote, a terrific vote, and one of the better moments since I've been in the Senate," Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) told HuffPost.
"We're rounding third and we're heading home," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who now chairs the health committee.
"We can see the finish line now, but we're not there," Reid told reporters after the vote.
Just one Democrat could yet derail the effort.
Before the vote, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell begged for such a Democratic defection.
"All it takes is one vote. Just one," said the Kentucky Republican, turning to the left side of the chamber with an outstretched palm. "The simple math is this: If there were one Democrat, just one of our friends on the other side of the aisle, just one, who would say 'no' tonight, the voices of the American people would be heard... And then we could start over with a common-sense, step by step approach."
Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) also begged for a do-over: "I still hope we can start over and get to work on a bipartisan bill."
Lieberman is among several in the caucus who have threatened to doom the effort, and he sounded like Eeyore again Saturday night, calling the public option "an eleventh-hour addition to a debate that's gone on for decades. Nobody's ever talked about a public option before, not even in the presidential campaign last year."
From the liberal end, Burris repeated a threat made earlier: That if the public option is taken out, he's gone. "I won't vote for it," he said.
"You'll lose people on the left," confirmed Brown.
Reid, aware of the fine line he's walking, told reporters that Landrieu, Schumer and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) are working on a compromise public option, perhaps something that 60 folks could support and save face.
"Now," said Kerry, "we just have to go forward and really legislate."
Arthur Delaney contributed to this report