Washington Sketch: Harry Reid, shopping for reelection insurance

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Harry Reid did Monday afternoon gave new meaning to the phrase "public option."

The Senate majority leader, after haggling behind closed doors with members of his Democratic caucus, realized that he couldn't cobble together the 60 votes he needed to pass health-care legislation with a government-run health plan. So Reid chose another option: He shut down the private talks, booked the Senate TV studio and went public with his own proposal.

"I've concluded," he told the roomful of cameras and reporters, "that the best way to move forward is to include a public option."

For Reid, it was an admission of the formidable power of liberal interest groups. He had been the target of a petition drive and other forms of pressure to bring the public option to the floor, and Monday's move made him an instant hero on the left. Americans United for Change hailed him for refusing "to buckle in the face of withering pressure from the big insurance companies." MoveOn.org admired his "leadership in standing up to the special interests."

Reid, facing a difficult reelection contest next year at home in Nevada, will need such groups to bring Democrats to the polls if he is to survive. But there were a few problems with the leader's solo move. He shifted the public pressure from himself to half a dozen moderates in his caucus. And he defied the Obama White House, which had hoped to keep a bipartisan patina on health-care reform by maintaining the support of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Then there was the small matter of lacking the votes to pass the public option. "Do you feel 100 percent sure right now that you have the 60 votes?" CNN's Dana Bash inquired. Reid looked down at the lectern. He looked up at the ceiling. He chuckled. He put his palms together as if in prayer. Then he spoke. "My caucus believes strongly there should be health-care reform" was the non sequitur he offered.

Bash reminded the leader that she had asked him "particularly on this idea of a public option."

Instead of answering, Reid, with a Zen expression, looked to the back of the room to solicit a question from somebody else. But Bash piped up again. "Senator Reid, with all due respect, is it possible to answer the question on whether or not you have the votes?"

"I believe we clearly will have the support of my caucus to move to this bill and start legislating," he replied, which also didn't answer the question.

By this time, Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, had one foot on the podium, as if he were ready to rush the stage and whisk his boss to safety.

Of course, everybody knew that Reid didn't have the votes. That's why he was standing there alone, a Gang of One. As Democratic aides described it, the moment had less to do with health-care policy than with Nevada politics -- and one vulnerable senator's justifiable fear of liberal anger. Now, if the public option unexpectedly survives in the Senate, Reid keeps his hero status on the left. If it fails, he at least gets credit for trying. By the Nobel committee's revised standards, his aspirations might even earn him the prizes in medicine and economics.

More than 50 reporters jammed the Senate TV studio for the afternoon announcement. Photographers crawled on the floor, looking for a good angle. Reid's arrival was unusually punctual, and the usually free-form leader read from a typewritten speech. "I believe there's a strong consensus to move forward in this direction," Reid argued.

But that belief was tested with the first question: Does the legislation stand a better chance of passing with the public option?

Reid offered a quartet of platitudes: "Obviously, public option is something that's been talked about a lot." And: "It's something I believe in the state of Nevada." Also: "All the national polls show a wide majority of Americans support the public option." And finally: "I think it's important that the matter that we work on in the Senate have a public option in it."

Reporters shouted questions from all directions; Reid maintained a serene expression and stared above them, at the cameras, even when asked if he was proposing a "Democrats-only approach."

"I'm always looking for Republicans," Reid quipped. "It's just a little hard to find them." He added his belief that the number of GOP moderates is "extremely limited -- I could count them on two fingers."

The Post's Shailagh Murray asked Reid another question about the lack of a consensus in the Democratic caucus, but by this time the majority leader had grown exasperated. "We all hug together and see where we come out," he answered.

So they were hugging in those closed-door negotiations? Manley had heard enough. "Thank you!" he called out, lending a shoulder to his boss to help him off the stage.

"How much of this is about making liberals happy?" CNN's Bash called after the majority leader.

Reid didn't answer. He didn't have to.

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