One of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s heroes is Key Pittman, who served as a U.S. senator from Nevada from 1913 to 1940. Pittman was president pro tempore of the Senate and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Reid named his youngest son after Pittman.
On Oct. 9, 1939, Acting Democratic Senate Leader Pittman engaged on the Senate floor in an angry exchange with isolationist leaders while managing President Roosevelt’s effort to repeal the arms embargo in the Neutrality Act.
Seventy years to the day later, all eyes were on Democratic Senate Leader Reid as he prepared for an episode that many observers both in Nevada and in the national press corps believe will call for all his legislative skills and may well determine his future.
When the health-care debate began earlier this year, public support for substantial changes in the system was high. Over the summer and under relentless insurance industry-funded attacks and Republican criticism, that support fell steadily. Counterattacks caused support for reform to climb in polls again starting in the middle of September, but by then the Democrats had been intimidated into softening their proposals, and some members of their own caucus in the Senate were off the reservation. Most of all, the 61-vote threshold imposed by Senate leaders on the proposal gave every Democratic senator a virtual veto on the proposal.
Moreover the Democrats have made a series of mistakes or have been injured by events.
The Senate Finance Committee dawdled at drafting legislation acceptable to Republicans. Sen. Christopher Dodd lost interest in drafting an alternative health-care bill. Sen. Edward Kennedy—the politically deft Democratic champion of health-care reform—died. Reid agreed to a summer recess that turned into coast-to-coast Democratic health-care bashing.
Reid’s handling of the substance of the issue over the summer confused many and exasperated others.
July 28: Reid declined to commit himself on a public option: “It would be really premature for me to lay out for each of you what I think should be in this bill … I have a responsibility to get a bill on the Senate floor that will get 60 votes. … that’s my No. 1 responsibility, and there are times when I have to set aside my personal preferences for the good of the Senate, and I think the country.”
Aug. 26: In a private meeting, Reid said, “We have a problem in America, and it’s called the private insurance industry,” which his listeners interpreted as support for a public option.
Aug. 28: Reid endorsed having a private company run a public option under federal guidelines, a proposal one news site called “Reid’s corporate public option.”
Sept. 10: Reid said what constitutes a public option is “in the eye of the beholder.”
Sept. 24: Reid called plans for a delay in creating a public option a “pretty doggone good idea.”
Oct. 1: Reid promised, “We are going to have a public option before this bill goes to the president’s desk.”
Oct. 1: Later that same day, Reid issued a statement that was interpreted as backing off the public option commitment, promising only “a mechanism to keep insurers honest, create competition and keep costs down” and calling public option a “relative term.”
In particular, Reid seemed to make Brian Walsh of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) a little crazy. The NRSC recruits, trains and helps fund GOP candidates for the U.S. Senate and tried to soften up Democrats by issuing non-stop attacks on them. At one point, when the Senate Finance Committee finally completed work on its proposal for health care changes, Walsh rushed out a message to Nevada journalists: “In case you missed it, Senator Reid apparently issued two different press statements today regarding the Baucus health care proposal with seemingly contrary messages—one to Nevada reporters and one far different to the national press corps. Please see for yourself below.”
In fact, the two messages were not in conflict. In the national one, Reid thanked committee chair Max Baucus for his work on the proposal and added that the bill had not reached its final form: “There will be a healthy and vigorous debate in the Finance Committee as Senators work to strengthen this proposal. I look forward to working with Chairman Baucus and Senator Dodd as well as the White House in the coming weeks to forge a final Senate bill that lowers costs, improves quality, preserves choice and creates competition.”
The statement to Nevada journalists also said Reid would work for changes in the bill, tailored to Nevada: “While this draft bill is a good starting point, it needs improvement before it will work for Nevada.”
Walsh was constantly sending out press statements demanding to know whether the proposal Reid brings to the floor will include a public option, as though Walsh actually thought Reid would disclose his floor strategy to the GOP.
Reid’s Sept. 22 claim that he had cut a special deal for Nevada—full funding for Medicaid—caused him all kinds of problems. For one thing, the notion that Nevada is a special case wasn’t received all that well in Nevada. For another, Baucus said it wasn’t a Nevada thing, that all states with high joblessness would get the same assistance. But that cut little ice, as other senators started lining up for goodies for their own states (Colorado Sen. Mark Udall: “We have to make sure Colorado is treated fairly”).
As the epic floor battle neared, journalists started publishing long pieces analyzing Reid’s style of leadership. He was compared to former Democratic floor leaders Lyndon Johnson, Mike Mansfield (the comparison Reid himself prefers) and Tom Daschle. All connected the health-care battle to his reelection, though back in the state a Las Vegas newspaper reported on a poll that indicated the two are not particularly linked.
The Las Vegas Sun reported that because Reid, to win the majority leader’s job, had promised autonomy to committee chairs, he had given up the ability to do anything about Baucus’s laid-back pace. If health-care changes fail, “Reid will get much of the blame.”
The Washington Post reported that “Every majority leader of the past 20 years [that would be three leaders] has left the chamber in some level of personal or political defeat, weakening the position’s institutional grip.”
The New York Times reported that Reid was planning on turning to President Obama “to arbitrate a number of contentious issues that still threaten to divide liberal and centrist Democrats and derail a final bill.”
Is success on health care necessary to Reid’s reelection?
“Well, I think one of his selling points [in the campaign] will be being this leader of the Democratic Party in the United States Senate, and if there’s anything such as this that communicates that he’s been an ineffective leader, it could come back to bite him,” said Nevada political scientist Fred Lokken. “Or if there are provisions in what is approved, if something is approved, that proved damaging to Nevada, I mean, he’s made his statements in the last week on the floor of the Senate about how he won’t support anything that hurts Nevada. I believe him in that. On the other hand, it is a compromise process, and if he were to agree to something that [unfavorably] impacts Nevada, that could clearly hurt him. But I think failure [of health-care reform] at this point in time could just be played up by his opponents.”
Channeling Key Pittman won’t help. Reid’s own skills will determine whether he can handle this challenging and polarizing fight. His fellow Democratic leaders seem to have no qualms about Reid.
“Our quarterback is Harry Reid,” Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who replaced Kennedy as health committee chair, told the New York Times. “We elected him to that position. He will decide how this is done.”