Did Reid Make Health Reform Tougher Than It Had to Be?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (center), Sen. Charles Schumer (left), and Victoria Reggie Kennedy (right) react after the Senate passed procedural vote on health care reform on December 21, 2009

In many ways, the Senate's 60-40 vote early Monday morning to shut down a filibuster of health care legislation was the most important one there will be over the next few days. After this, the bill's passage later this week — probably on Christmas Eve — is going to be an anticlimax. And while the bill still must go through a conference committee, where the House and Senate will iron out their differences over a host of issues, the odds that some kind of health care legislation will make it to President Obama's desk early next year have grown substantially. "Today, the Senate took another historic step toward our goal of delivering access to quality, affordable health care to all Americans," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement. He went on to add that the bill will help "promote choice and competition to drive down skyrocketing health care costs for families ... all across America."

But there is one question about the process that people are likely to be debating for years: Did the road to passage really have to be this rocky? The shape of the legislation — and specifically, the fact that there were never going to be 60 votes in the Senate for a government-run public option — has been clear for months. So why did Reid insist upon taking the public option to the Senate floor as part of the initial bill he introduced, making the fight even messier and at times seriously jeopardizing Dems' chances of passing such a landmark bill?

More cynical observers think the answer is rooted in the fact the Reid faces what could be a difficult re-election in Nevada next year. "The reason was clear," wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank. "The attempt would excite his Democratic base in Nevada, which would give him credit for trying even when the plan ultimately failed, as it did this week. But Reid seemed not to have considered, or cared about, the collateral damage: forcing moderate Democrats such as Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas to cast a procedural vote in favor of the public option that could prove ruinous to their own careers — and to the party's majority."

But Tom Daschle, Reid's predecessor as Senate Democratic leader, says the calculation was far more complicated than that, and reflected the unique political rhythms of the Senate as an institution. One cliché about the job of the Majority Leader is that it is like carrying bullfrogs in a wheelbarrel. He never knows when one of his members is going to hop out, and unless he is sure he has all 60 of them aboard at the precise moment of the vote, he can't get anything done.

Reid, says Daschle, had no choice but to offer the public option. "He was under intense pressure from the House [which has one in its bill] and the liberals in the caucus to at least make the effort." Also, by including the option, Reid gained a valuable bargaining chip — something he could give up in negotiations to win the votes of more conservative members like Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, an independent who is counted as part of the Democratic caucus, and Nebraska's Ben Nelson.

Ultimately, of course, a win is a win. What Reid and President Obama can claim is an achievement that has eluded Democratic Presidents and lawmakers going back more than a half century. "The much-pilloried Harry Reid led an increasingly undemocratic and dysfunctional institution to a stunning victory for the majority party," the Brookings Institution's Tom Mann wrote in Politico. "He deserves an apology from any number of prominent Washingtonians." But if there's one thing Harry Reid has been in Washington long enough to know, it is this: He shouldn't hold his breath waiting for one.