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Reid: Reform on Right Path

Leader Defends Role in Debate

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday that he can’t promise passage of health care reform this year, but he believes he has helped set his Conference on a course for success.

“I can’t guarantee,— Reid said in an interview. “I think we stand a very good chance of being able to do it. I think that each step that goes by, we’re closer.—

Reid said he hopes to be able to bring a bill to the floor “sometime next week,— and he noted that a potential recess the week of Oct. 12 might not take place if the Senate is in the midst of the health care debate.

Reid initially hoped the Senate would have cleared a health care bill before the August recess, but delays in the Finance Committee’s bipartisan gang of six negotiations forced him to abandon that goal. After those talks failed to produce a deal by Sept. 15, however, Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) drafted his own proposal, set for a markup Tuesday.

Despite coming under fire from fellow Democrats for not stopping Baucus from courting three Republican votes that have yet to materialize, Reid defended his decision to tolerate the Montana Democrat’s push for more time over the August recess and into the beginning of this month. Reid noted that Baucus’ gambit, while unsuccessful, was an attempt to avoid using strict budget reconciliation rules that would limit Reid’s ability to achieve all the reforms Democrats are seeking, even though those rules would obviate the need for a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority.

“Baucus did exactly the thing that he had to do,— Reid said. “Did he spend too much time? Did we spend too much time? We spent as much time as we had to, because anytime the Republicans walked away, we had to go immediately to reconciliation because we didn’t have 60 votes.—

“We couldn’t speed it up, and those three Republicans who were supposedly willing to help, they said, ‘You rush us, we’ll walk out of here,’— the Majority Leader said, referring to Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.).

Despite the hype surrounding his 60-vote-strong caucus, Reid said the failing health of both the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) meant “we never had 60 Senators here.— After Kennedy’s death from brain cancer last month, Democrats can only boast a 59-member Conference.

Reid said he is hopeful the Massachusetts Legislature will soon vote to allow the governor to appoint a replacement for Kennedy so he will again be able to call on 60 Senators, but he said that has not stopped Democrats from pursuing one of the few Republicans seen as open to bipartisan compromise — Snowe.

“They’re working on a Senator up in Massachusetts,— Reid said. “There are different ways we can get to 60 votes. It’s not just dependent totally on her. I hope we can [get Snowe’s vote]. She’s a good legislator.—

But he said he is doing everything he can to avoid using reconciliation to pass health care reform.

“I would rather do a bill that we can get 60 votes on, either on a bipartisan basis or a partisan basis,— he said.

Reid also dismissed as inaccurate criticism that he has not been driving the health care debate more forcefully, indicating he’s more of an unseen hand.

“Some people think I’m doing too much. So it’s all in the eye of the beholder,— he said. He added that during the gang of six’s negotiations, he was on the phone nearly every day with Baucus and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel helping to craft strategy and move the process forward.

“You may not see these things … but that doesn’t mean I’m not heavily involved in what goes on. That’s my style,— Reid said. “If I’ve talked to Rahm Emanuel on any given day, I don’t run and tell the press that’s what I’ve done. … I think that I’m constructive in the way I do these things.—

He said people who wished he would have taken over the process from Baucus would not have likely gotten a product any faster, and that it would only have made his job more difficult.

“I would not have moved the process forward by injecting myself into the situation,— Reid said. “It had to come through the committee process. The committee process, the reason you have it in the first place is you can’t have 60 Democratic Senators being responsible for reporting a bill to the Senate floor. … [Committees] makes it more of a doable deal. I think that’s the way we should do it. That’s what creates stability.—

Reid acknowledged, “One of the problems we’ve run into with this health care bill is setting artificial deadlines.—

Even so, he expressed hope that a bill could be sent to the president before the Thanksgiving holiday.

Reid said the timing of a bill on the floor of the Senate will depend on how quickly the Congressional Budget Office can come up with cost estimates for the merger between the Finance measure and a bill passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

He has said he will direct that marriage in consultation with the White House, Baucus and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who pushed the HELP bill in Kennedy’s absence. Reid has said the full Senate will choose between the biggest differences in the bills — whether to create a public insurance option as called for in the HELP measure or a network of nonprofit health insurance cooperatives as included in the Finance bill.

Reid intimated that taking on a divisive health care debate has not been easy for someone who is facing a tough re-election next year. With his approval ratings in the mid-30s, Reid has become an enticing target for Republicans hoping to knock off the Senate Democratic leader. The likely Republican field includes Sue Lowden, recently the head of the Nevada GOP, Danny Tarkanian, son of a prominent college basketball coach, and Mark Amodei, a state Senator.

Senate passage of an economic stimulus along with bills providing consumer protections for credit cards, regulating tobacco products and preserving public lands, among others, have “been very good for me at home,— Reid argued.

But he acknowledged, “Not all issues are as easy as most of those were, and one of them that’s not so easy is health care. But as President Obama said, when I said, ‘Hey, Barack, that’s hard,’ he said, “If it’d been easy, someone else would have already done it.’ Health care is hard, and I think the people of Nevada are happy that I’m going to have some input in what happens in the bill.—

Reid said he has been buoyed by the fact that most of the calls coming into his office in recent weeks “are much more positive than negative— and that he doesn’t trust the polls that show him trailing little-known Republican challengers.

“The only poll that matters is the one in 13 months,— he said.

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