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Reid Tries to Turn Attacks Into Gains

Senate Republicans may not have designed it this way, but their rhetorical assault last week on Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) ended up spawning a raft of positive news coverage at home for the vulnerable leader they hope to defeat in 2010.

Suffering from low poll numbers in Nevada and facing criticism that he hasn’t done enough for the state, Reid found himself the subject of a long Senate floor colloquy among Republicans who were upset that he had used his considerable power to eliminate the requirement for his home state to match Medicaid in the Finance Committee’s health care reform package.

“We cut special favors for special states, not based on need or requirements, but on the influence of the individual Senator or Member of Congress,— Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on the floor Wednesday.

The purpose of the GOP offensive was apparently to try to gin up consternation among Reid’s fellow Democrats about the amount of Medicaid matching funds their respective states would have to pony up under the bill.

That has worked to some degree, but Reid is set to take charge of the health care bill this week when he begins merging the Finance plan with a measure passed out of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel. Reid already plans to meet with fellow Democrats to address their concerns about the bill and is likely to have to further tweak the Medicaid funding formulas for other concerned Democrats.

But in the meantime, Reid is definitely reaping the benefits of his gambit back home and clearly enjoying it.

“I make no apologies, none, for helping people in my state,— Reid said on the floor.

Clips of an energized and defiant Reid defending his stance on the floor were played on multiple newscasts in Nevada, and the Las Vegas Sun ran an article lampooning the Republicans’ tactics.

“In Nevada, Reid is badgered for not doing enough for the state — not using his power as majority leader to bring home enough bacon,— Sun reporter Lisa Mascaro wrote. “In Washington, he is being pilloried for using his clout to cut a better Medicaid deal for Nevada in the health care legislation. Which is it?—

The episode highlights the actual power Reid as the Majority Leader has in the health care debate. When Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) unveiled his bill more than two weeks ago, it took Reid barely a day to secure a promise from the Montana Democrat that the measure would be fixed to ensure Nevada incurred no additional Medicaid costs from the bill’s expansion of the program.

The language was changed to allow 100 percent federal funding for states with high unemployment and low Medicaid enrollment. That meant that Nevada, along with Oregon, Rhode Island and Michigan, would not have to pay for the Medicaid expansion for the first five years under the bill.

But Republicans, such as Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), have argued that Reid isn’t doing Nevada or other states any favors by pushing an ill-designed health care bill through the chamber.

“Senator Reid recognized the serious flaw in the Medicaid provision and sought to correct it. Sen. Alexander has offered to join the Democratic leader to co-sponsor a Reid amendment that finishes the job for the other 46 states,— Alexander spokesman Ryan Loskarn said. “The work shouldn’t stop here though: There are plenty of other provisions that are bad for Nevadans and the rest of the country that need to be fixed.—

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh added that Reid’s position on the Medicaid provisions threatened to make other vulnerable Senate Democrats look bad if their state can’t get the same deal.

“This is a perfect example of how Harry Reid’s election troubles in Nevada are negatively affecting increasingly vulnerable Democrats,— Walsh said.

The NRSC has been targeting other Democrats with releases referring to Reid’s Medicaid deal for Nevada. For example, a release going after Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) asks, “What does she think of this special deal her leader cut for his own state while it’s her constituents who will be burdened with paying for massive new health care costs?—

National Republicans are keen on giving Reid a serious challenge this cycle, especially given recent polls showing his approval ratings in the mid-30s.

But a crowded GOP primary field threatens to complicate that process.

Just last week, former Nevada Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden — who stepped down from that post last month to contemplate a Senate bid — made her 2010 campaign against Reid official. In so doing, Lowden jumped to the top of the pile among GOP primary candidates.

Among those also running are state Sen. Mark Amodei, former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, attorney Chuck Kozak and businessman Danny Tarkanian.

The NRSC has said it won’t take sides in the primary, but Republican insiders wonder how long the committee can stay out of the race, especially with Reid’s camp vowing to spend upward of $25 million on his re-election.

John McArdle contributed to this report.

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