Does Harry Reid Have the Stomach for This Fight?

Harry Reid should be well suited to the delicate, grueling, and thoroughly thankless task of merging the health care packages passed by the Senate’s two committees of jurisdiction, a process that kicked off with the Finance Committee’s approval of a bill on Tuesday.

The majority leader enjoys the trust and respect of his caucus, resists negotiating in public and can skillfully traverse the ideological divides on the Democratic side—a good combination for the work at hand.

And yet on the left, where the inclusion of a government-run health insurance option is regarded as the reason to pass a reform program, there is worry that Reid’s role may be compromised by his own precarious home-state political situation.

Back in Nevada, a swing state that twice voted for George W. Bush before siding with Barack Obama last year, Reid faces a brutal reelection campaign next year. Polls show him running between 5 and 10 points behind his potential Republican foes—a terrible place for a fourth-term incumbent to be, especially considering that neither Republican is a top-tier recruit.

Considered in this context, there are two political imperatives for Reid as he manages health care in the Senate: (1) making sure that a bill passes and becomes law, so that he can claim credit for a historic achievement—thereby showing Nevadans that his partisan leadership role has actual value; and (2) making sure that the bill that passes doesn’t offend Nevada’s swing state sensibilities—that it doesn’t seem like Reid simply used his muscle to jam Obama’s “liberal” agenda down the throats of an unwilling public.

This is what makes the left nervous, because the easiest way for Reid to satisfy these objectives would be to err on the side of watering down the bill in an effort to line up some Republican support and to avoid the perception that he was just doing the left’s bidding.

That would mean, among other things, not using the filibuster-bypassing reconciliation process that the left is clamoring for as a way of passing a strong public option.

And it would mean bending over backward to accommodate Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican who—after months of agonizing and with many caveats—voted for the Finance Committee’s bill on Tuesday. Snowe staunchly opposes a public option; the farthest she’s willing to go is to support a “trigger,” which would establish a public plan after a few years if private insurers fail to bring down costs. (At least in theory—it’s doubtful a trigger would ever actually be pulled, even if insurance companies failed to deliver.)

But the left is hoping that Reid, who is said personally to support a public option, will use his clout to make sure that a real public plan is included in the Senate’s version. Since (a more expansive) one will also be in the House’s bill, the public option would then be sure to survive the House/Senate conference, meaning that public-plan opponents would have to kill the whole to get rid of it.

“Leader Reid has the option of putting it in the final bill,” Chuck Schumer, one of the Senate’s leading public-option advocates, said on Tuesday. “If he puts it in the final bill, in the combined bill, then you would need 60 votes to remove it. And there clearly are not 60 votes against the public option.”

(Reid quickly took the extraordinary step of criticizing Schumer publicly for his comments.)

Nor is Schumer the only Senate liberal publicly pressuring Reid. “I think it's sort of the time I think when it comes down to who you are,” West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller said of Reid’s task on Wednesday.

This may be expecting too much of Reid, though. It’s telling, for instance, how much latitude he gave this summer to the Finance chairman, Max Baucus, whose bill—by far the narrowest and most conservative plan passed by any of the five Congressional committees of jurisdiction—was shaped by negotiations with three of the panel’s Republicans (Snowe, Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi). Democrats groaned as that process fruitlessly dragged on—and as Grassley and Enzi essentially admitted that they weren’t acting in good faith—but Reid backed Baucus.

And after Snowe voted for the Baucus bill on Tuesday (while making it clear that her support was good for that day only), Reid’s spokesman told The New York Times that the majority leader would takes pains to “keep her on board.”

That, combined with Reid’s emphasis on securing a filibuster-killing 60 votes (as opposed to using reconciliation, which would only require 50, plus Joe Biden’s tie-breaking vote if needed), suggests that Snowe’s bottom line on the public option—nothing, ideally, but a trigger at the absolute most—will be Reid’s bottom line.

You might wonder why Reid would be scared of a public option, given that polling in Nevada suggests it is a popular concept (as it is nationally). But those numbers may be misleading, since the public option is defined for respondents in those polls. As part of the current debate, though, the term “public option” is mysterious and undefined to most Americans. With the right screaming that it’s akin to a government takeover of health care, it can still be politically risky for swing state politicians—like Reid—to be identified with it.

Reid is angling to produce a merged bill by the end of next week and to bring it to the Senate floor on October 26. He’s sent plenty of mixed and confusing public signals on health care this year, so who knows: Maybe he’ll surprise the left and come through with a public plan.

But it also might be worth wondering if a different majority leader, one from a safe, blue state who wouldn’t have to worry about running afoul of a G.O.P.-friendly electorate back home, might be better positioned than Reid is right now to make the public option a reality. Does Harry Reid Have the Stomach for This Fight?