Harry Reid Gets the Schumer Treatment

In the nearly five years that Harry Reid has been the Senate’s Democratic leader, public tension between him and Chuck Schumer—who serves with Reid in the leadership—has essentially been nonexistent. Until now.

At issue is the fate of the public option in the Reid-guided negotiations that are supposed to produce a unified Senate health care bill by the end of next week.

This isn’t necessarily the make-or-break moment for the public option, but it’s close: if Reid includes one in the final bill, it’ll be much harder for opponents to take it out—they’d probably have to kill the whole package to do so. But if he doesn’t, public-option supporters will be left trying to insert it either as an amendment on the floor or during the House-Senate conference committee—both very iffy bets at best.

Schumer, like many of his Democratic Senate colleagues and all of the party’s base, wants it in now. Reid isn’t at all convinced, fearing that a public option will scare off a few conservative Democrats (and Olympia Snowe) and prevent him from cobbling together a filibuster-killing 60-vote majority.

But the real difference between them is simpler: Schumer is willing to risk an ugly floor fight—one that would dare those conservative Democrats to sink the first meaningful effort at health care reform in decades over their objections to a public option. Reid, who faces an uphill reelection campaign in a swing state next year, doesn’t seem to be—much to the chagrin of Schumer and his public option soulmates.

Which explains why Schumer, for whom Reid created a new leadership post after he guided the party’s 2006 Senate takeover efforts, took it upon himself to use a Tuesday night national television appearance to prod Reid toward his position.

“Leader Reid has the option of putting it in the final bill,” Schumer said on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. “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. And so we’re urging him to do that and he’s seriously considering it.

That appearance also came hours after Snowe, a Maine Republican, voted for the public-option-less health care bill produced by the Senate Finance Committee—an action that prompted Reid to invite her to play a prominent role in combining the Finance bill with the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions bill, which includes a public option.

This seemed to be on Schumer’s mind when he said on MSNBC that “my view is that we have [the public option] in whether we get any Republicans or not.”

Schumer’s got Washington’s attention. It’s one thing for a rank-and-file senator to offer the majority leader advice on television; quite another when it’s one of his fellow members of leadership—especially at such a sensitive time.

And so, as Politico’s Glenn Thrush reported, Reid pulled Schumer aside on the Senate floor on Wednesday to talk to him about his comments on Maddow. Talking to reporters, Reid tried to make light of Schumer’s comments, but there was an unmistakable edge: “He would rather say anything so it wasn’t up to him.”

Schumer, you might have heard, is known for his aggression in pursuit of his political goals. (Onetime neighbor-state senator Jon Corzine famously said, “Sharing a media market with Chuck Schumer is like trying to share a banana with a monkey—take a bite of it and he’ll throw his feces all over you.”) But even by his standards, the public pressuring of Reid is rather bold.

Part of it, no doubt, comes from genuine, policy-rooted frustration. The case for the public option is blindingly obvious; it has plenty of support in the House; the president is willing to sign it into law; and more than 50 Senate Democrats believe in the concept. What’s the point of controlling the White House and Congress if you’re not willing to fight to get something like this through?

Plus, health care reform without a public option—even a weak one that can be reformed and expanded later—wouldn’t be much reform at all. The more egregious abuses of private insurers would be curbed, but Americans—tens of millions more of them, thanks to the individual mandate—would still be at the mercy of private, profit-driven companies for their health care. In this sense, Schumer is just channeling the frustrations of many Democrats.

But his sense of urgency probably runs deeper than that, since—more than any other Democrat—Schumer has taken it upon himself to make sure that some form of a public option makes it into the final health care plan. This is a cause he sought out and embraced—and one that will, in part, define him as a Senate leader.

And this is no small matter, since Schumer would very much like to be the majority leader someday—and someday could be coming next year, if Reid can’t somehow reverse his dire Nevada poll numbers. The fight for the public option, then, stands as a test run for Schumer’s leadership—a chance to show the majority of Senate Democrats who want a public option that he can mix idealism with pragmatism and achieve meaningful results.

For the sake of his own aspirations (aspirations he’ll never admit to as long as Reid is still running for reelection), Schumer needs Reid to cave and put the public option into the final bill. Or barring that, Schumer needs to establish to his fellow Democrats that, if he were the leader, this wouldn’t even be an issue—the public option would be in the bill, period.

By speaking out this week, Schumer has addressed both of these imperatives.

Harry Reid Gets the Schumer Treatment