WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has drawn both condemnation and adulation for deals he struck to win passage of legislation for the biggest overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system in more than four decades.
Critics charge that Reid effectively bought senators’ votes by packing the measure with provisions for their states — for example, $100 million for a hospital in Connecticut and $100 million to provide medical care for the poor in Louisiana.
But others say deal-making long has been commonplace on Capitol Hill, and Reid is just particularly skilled at it.
“He’s very good at talking with senators, listening to what they say and figuring out what they want,” said John Shepard of the Washington Research Group, a private firm that tracks Congress for institutional investors.
“This legislation is monumental,” Shepard added. “I take my hat off to Harry Reid.”
He worked day and night for weeks, drafting and redrafting legislation, conferring with lawmakers, studying various cost estimates. Facing solid Republican opposition, Reid could not afford to lose the support of anyone in his 60-member Senate Democratic caucus, with 58 Democrats and two independents.
In the end, he got every one of them — liberals, moderates and conservatives — for the 60 votes needed to overcome Republican procedural roadblocks in the 100-member chamber.
“You’ve got the toughest job in Washington. And you are doing it very well under very difficult circumstances,” President Barack Obama told Reid as the senator scrambled for votes, according to a congressional aide.
What remains to be seen is whether Reid’s work gives him a boost with voters back home in Nevada, where he faces a tough re-election campaign next year. His political fate may hinge on whether voters decide they like the healthcare overhaul.
The healthcare bill won Senate passage on Christmas Eve by a 60-39 vote, with no Republicans voting “yes.” The House of Representatives passed its version in November, and lawmakers now must work out differences in the two bills before both chambers vote again to give the bill to Obama to sign.
Reid’s bill was slammed by Republicans and some of their business allies as being too expensive and too intrusive into the private insurance industry.
But the American Medical Association, which represents doctors, and other groups welcomed the measure for aiming to increase access to healthcare and rein in industry abuses.
The bill would extend health coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans and halt industry practices such as refusing insurance to people with pre-existing conditions. It also would require most Americans to have insurance and give government subsidies to help some pay for it.
“Harry Reid makes Hercules look weak,” said Democratic Senator Arlen Specter, a former Republican, said of the slender and slouching majority leader who often talks in a near whisper. “His message is, ‘We must do this for America.’”
Reid was toughened up back home in Nevada, the gambling capital of the United States, where as a boy he had to hitchhike 40 miles each week to go to high school, became an amateur boxer and then battled organized crime.
As the corruption-fighting state gaming commissioner in casino-lined Las Vegas, Reid fended off death threats from the Mob. His wife once found a bomb in the family car.
“Whenever I hear people talk about how rough-and tumble things can get in Washington, I remind myself of these years in Las Vegas,” Reid wrote in his 2008 autobiography, “The Good Fight.”
Besides providing funds to states of individual senators, Reid accommodated moderate lawmakers by eliminating plans for a new government-run insurance program to compete with private insurers and an expansion of the Medicare government health program for the elderly and disabled.
That riled Senate Democratic liberals. But Reid kept them in line, saying the legislation was too important to abandon.
Reid’s biggest challenge was winning over Senator Ben Nelson, a conservative Democrat who demanded stronger restrictions on the use of federal funds to pay for abortions.
After marathon talks, Nelson got that and more — federal funds for his state of Nebraska to pay for the bill’s expansion of the Medicaid government health program for the poor.
Critics denounced such accommodations.
“How can you get 60 senators to vote for a bill that the American people don’t want? The way you do that is by playing ‘The Price is Right,’ by offering sweetheart deals,” said Republican Senator John Cornyn, referring to the TV game show.
Reid said he did what had to be done. “That’s what legislation is all about,” Reid said. “It’s compromise.”
Democratic Senator Tom Harkin said if Reid had been Senate majority leader in 1994, the Senate would have passed the sweeping healthcare bill sought by then-President Bill Clinton.
“With Harry Reid, we wouldn’t have lost,” Harkin said, nearly spitting out his words in recalling how George Mitchell, then the Senate majority leader, “threw in the towel.”
“Harry Reid has a lot of patience and perseverance,” Harkin said. “He keeps pushing on.”
(Editing by Arshad Mohammed and Will Dunham)
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