Like a sports movie, the health-care debate has been stuffed with platitudes. The most nauseating have come from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), who chatters endlessly about “making history” to his colleagues. It’s getting old. Reid may fancy himself a master at the cloakroom pep talk, but his caucus coaching is dismal.
Late Tuesday night, Reid announced that he had sealed a deal and reached a “broad agreement” on his bill. It all seemed rather sudden and melodramatic — a flailing attempt to gin up support amongst leery Democrats. “This has been a long journey,” said Reid. “We have confronted many hurdles, and tonight I believe we have overcome yet another one.” History, he swooned, is nigh.
Hasn’t Reid seen Hoosiers or Miracle? Norman Dale and Herb Brooks never called the big game with time left on the clock. Soaring rhetoric? Tolerable. But telling the sideline reporters that you’re “confident” with much still in play is an easy way to end up in shame city should someone drop the ball. So Reid must know: Now that he’s called his shot, he’d better make it. To do so, Reid will have to find a way to keep 59 senators on his side — a tough task, since he doesn’t have much bench depth in the event that one of his 59 fellow Democrats decides not to show up on game day.
The key to the deal Reid claims to have brokered between ten Democrats — five moderate, five liberal — is two-fold: The bill will offer private insurance plans under the auspices of the federal employee health program, and it will enable middle-aged Americans to buy into Medicare. All that sounds fine to most Democrats, yet they admit that they haven’t seen the bill or signed on to anything specific. President Obama, eyeing Reid’s floor maneuvers from his White House suite, called the consensus a “creative framework.” In other words, our hoops-loving president likes the play Reid has drawn up, but is waiting to see the points go up on the scoreboard.
The president may have to keep waiting. History, it seems, is not on Reid’s side. The majority leader can cite the lessons from the past all he wants, but his caucus is sweating about the future on everything from reelection chances to sagging public support. Whereas a phone call from Obama to talk about Teddy Kennedy’s health-care legacy may once have been potent, Democratic senators now just look at the numbers. As much as they may want to join the Liberal Lion Hall of Fame, such aspirations sound outrageous to constituents struggling to find work.
While Reid touts his deal, Republicans smell blood. “For months now, we’ve heard that the Democrats are intent on doing something historic,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) tells NRO. “They’re getting into a room three times a day to convince themselves that they’re right and will go down with the ship together.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R., Tex.) agrees. “The president and Senator Reid are telling them that they’ve got to make history,” he says. “For many of them making these votes, they will become history. They won’t be coming back.”
So why, then, is Reid so bold in proclaiming an early victory? He has, of course, a trick play in his back pocket: the so-called “manager’s amendment.” This is Reid’s messy catch-all amendment package. It will save time by bundling many amendments together in lieu of introducing them one by one, which is the usual procedure in the Senate. To snag votes, Reid will be able to insert language from amendments that have failed on their own — like the recent Nelson-Hatch abortion amendment.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) told reporters on Monday that he thinks Reid will use his manager’s amendment to “allow a cover vote so everyone can state their positions and then say, ‘Well, I couldn’t control the manager’s amendment.’” Reid can also use it to make promises to Democrats playing hard-to-get, as he did with his infamous “Louisiana Purchase” of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D., La.). “It’s a fix-all for Reid,” says Alexander.
“We need to make sure that every state is treated exactly the same way,” adds Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.). He pledges to raise a fuss in conference if Reid’s manager’s amendment is full of pork. “It’ll probably be like a Persian bazaar outside of the Capitol,” he says.
For now, both sides are waiting for Reid’s deal to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office. Once that’s done, Reid will see what he needs to add, tack on his manager’s amendment, and make a final push toward 60 votes. All of this needs to happen by early next week if Reid wants any shot at getting a bill out of the upper chamber by Christmas.
What makes Reid’s Tuesday-night fist pump so odd is that Democrats need a low-profile operator now. If Reid were savvy, he’d stay mum and keep leaning on senators in the cloakroom. The procedural rules and manager’s amendment are all that matter now.
The Democrats need a coach who’ll help them control the ball and work the clock, not brag about an impending half-court heave. As Coach Dale says in Hoosiers, “there’s more to the game than shooting. There’s fundamentals and defense.” For Reid, that’s one sports-movie platitude worth remembering.
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.