Reid’s New Year’s Resolution: Do-Over

Posted January 20, 2010 at 6:50pm

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) seems to be having a very bad year. And it’s only Jan. 21.

He was already facing a brutal re-election battle this November. Then it was revealed he made an impolitic remark about President Barack Obama’s race. And now, the architect of the Senate’s health care bill and arguably the chamber’s most endangered 2010 incumbent lost his ace in the hole — a filibuster-proof supermajority — when Massachusetts voters on Tuesday chose a Republican upstart over a Democratic establishment candidate to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Ironically, Senators and aides said Wednesday that Reid’s day-to-day job as Majority Leader may get somewhat easier after Massachusetts Sen.-elect Scott Brown is sworn in as the 41st Republican and shrinks the Democratic Conference to 59. If true, that could give Reid more room to focus on his own political future and less on the daily management of Senators and Senate business.

Still, Democrats conceded that Reid’s reputation among his colleagues and his electoral fortunes may rest in part on Congress’ ability to send a health care reform bill to the president — and quickly.

“At the end of last year, he was in a position to get a heck of a lot of credit for being able to strike a delicate balance on a bill that was incredibly complex and contentious,— one Senate Democratic aide said of health care. “Going forward, it’s a question of whether health care can be salvaged and how much else of the Obama agenda can be salvaged.—

According to a Jan. 13 Rasmussen poll, the percentage of Nevadans who would vote to give Reid another six-year term fell from 43 percent to 36 percent after it became public earlier this month that Reid referred to Obama in 2008 as “light skinned— with “no Negro dialect.— The same poll showed public opposition to health care reform in Nevada at 54 percent.

However, Democratic leaders and the White House have repeatedly argued that without passage of health care reform, Democrats will never get a chance to correct what they say are GOP scare tactics about the overhaul.

[IMGCAP(1)]Still, Reid and other Senate Democrats said Wednesday that Brown’s win in Tuesday’s special election did not represent a repudiation of the chamber’s reform efforts. But Reid and members of his caucus were also quick to say that they hope to finish the bill quickly so they can pivot to what they see as a more promising political message: job creation.

“Sen. Reid and Democrats are committed to passing health care,— Reid campaign manager Brandon Hall said. But Hall said that regardless of the fate of the Democratic health care bill, Reid’s campaign is focused more on local issues.

“This race is going to be about Nevada,— he said. “It will be about who can best deliver for Nevada.—

Though Senate Democrats did not appear to be in full panic mode over the ramifications the Massachusetts election might have for their vulnerable incumbents in November, a number of Senators acknowledged that the midterm elections appeared to be a much steeper climb this year, with Reid’s race no exception.

“If there’s anybody in this building that doesn’t tell you they’re more worried about elections today, you should absolutely slap them— said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who was first elected in 2006.

Indeed, Reid’s GOP challengers, who must face off in a June primary, immediately began trying to use Brown’s win to their advantage. Nevada Republican candidate Danny Tarkanian sent out a fundraising appeal Wednesday arguing that the GOP victory puts the party in a good position to defeat Reid and that he is the right Republican to take down the Majority Leader.

“Just like in Massachusetts, we can send a message that we’ve had enough of an ever-growing federal government,— Tarkanian says in the fundraising e-mail. “With your support, we will end Harry Reid’s four decades in politics and kick him out of the Ritz Carlton in Washington, DC permanently.—

But in a bit of good news for Reid, the Las Vegas Sun also reported Wednesday that “sniping— between Tarkanian and the other top GOP Senate hopeful, former state party Chairwoman Sue Lowden, threatens to alienate the very independent voters they will need in a general election matchup against Reid.

Additionally, the White House announced Wednesday that Obama will travel with Reid to Las Vegas next month.

Still, as the pressure on Reid at home is growing, the pressure under the Dome may be easing a little.

“Harry Reid has the hardest job in America, and I think it will continue to be a hard job,— Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said. “I don’t know if [Brown’s win] will help the Democrats’ unity or hurt the unity. My sense is it probably helps a little bit.—

Though 60 votes in the Senate are needed to beat back a filibuster, having 60 members of the Democratic Conference has not translated into quick and easy action for Democrats and Reid on big legislative goals.

With 60, Democrats had no one to blame but themselves if they couldn’t accomplish something. And just as many pundits predicted, coverage of the health care debate centered largely on the Democrats’ intraparty fights and their seeming inability to come together.

“In terms of management of the overall institution, there is an argument to be made that this makes it easier for Harry Reid,— one senior Senate Democratic aide said of the altered math in the chamber. “The main reason for that is Republicans can no longer say they don’t have a seat at the table.—

With just 40 Members, Republicans often complained they were not offered any opportunities to reach bipartisan accord. But with 60 votes needed to pass most legislation in the Senate, Democrats said they will have to own their opposition to every bill.

Arguably, Senate Democrats accomplished more legislation with greater ease with 58 votes, before Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) switched from the Republican Party in April and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) was sworn in as the 60th vote in July following an eight-month recount fight with former Sen. Norm Coleman (R).

In the first few months of 2009, Democrats passed party priorities such as an equal pay bill, a children’s health insurance measure, a minimum wage increase and an economic stimulus. Conversely, the health care debate, which did not pick up steam until after Franken was sworn in, appeared to sap the party’s energy and the chamber’s oxygen as Republicans closed ranks against any and all versions of the bill.

But if Reid is to re-create the early successes of last year, he will need to stem the panic he or any of his Members may be having about the looming November election. Of course, if Reid is worried, he isn’t showing it just yet. He preached calm to his rank and file Wednesday, even as he scrambled along with House leaders to come up with a plan to pass the health care package without that crucial 60th vote.

Reid’s projected serenity was clearly catching Wednesday.

“Part of it is we need to take a breath,— Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said.

Emily Cadei contributed to this report.