Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hails from the hard-rock-mining town of Searchlight, Nev. He once made a name for himself there as an amateur boxer. But in what may be his biggest fight yet, Reid is playing referee. He is leading the effort to combine two sharply different health care bills.
Reid must please both liberals and centrists to garner the 60-vote majority needed to fend off filibusters. Even his fellow Democrats shake their heads in wonder at the task he's set himself.
"I heard one of my colleagues today say, 'Is he Harry Reid or Harry Houdini?' " Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas said.
On Wednesday, a day after Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe became the first Republican to vote for a health care bill, Reid stopped to talk to reporters. He was on his way to the first of what will very likely be many closed-door meetings with top White House officials and the two Democrats whose committees produced the bills.
Reid took a swipe at his Republican colleagues when told they wanted to spend months debating the bill he's trying to hammer out.
"I believe that the Republican leader and all of his colleagues, with the exception of a couple there — one of whom is Sen. Snowe, and there are a couple others — want to do anything that they can do not to have a bill," he said.
Such blunt questioning of Republicans' motives is vintage Reid. Georgetown University's Stephen Wayne says it serves to foster us-versus-them solidarity in a Democratic caucus that's divided over key health care issues.
"He's appealing to Democratic unity, and the one thing all the Democrats can agree on is that the Republicans seem to be naysayers in this," Wayne said.
But Reid also needs the support of at least some Republicans, if only to provide political cover for fence-sitting Democrats to back whatever bill he comes up with. By Thursday, Reid had softened his rhetoric, saying he was confident more GOP senators would end up on his side.
"I've spoken to two other Republicans today on health care and who knows? We may yet have help from one of those two or both of those, so we're not writing off the Republicans," he said.
It's the same one-on-one approach that Reid used successfully earlier this year to get three Republican senators behind President Obama's stimulus package. Wayne says Reid is no hard-charging Lyndon Johnson; rather, Reid strikes a soft stance to make a hard sell.
"He has a tenacity," he said. "He also tends to have a low-key approach; he tends to be a person who wants to placate others."
Bringing People Together
Reid declined to be interviewed for this report. But Max Baucus, who is one of the two committee chairmen whose bills Reid is blending, says the majority leader is indeed the right man for the job.
"I mean, he's conciliatory. I mean, he's a moderator. He's — look, he's been leader. As leader, you've got to bring people together," Baucus said. "That's the nature of leader and he's very good at it."
Indeed, one of the first concessions Baucus made on the centrist health care bill his Finance Committee produced was to Reid. The majority leader demanded, and got, a multiyear exemption from higher Medicaid rates for his state and three others with high unemployment.
Republicans, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, cried foul.
"Who pays?" he said. "The other states, duh."
But Reid stood his ground: "The people of Nevada are hurting and I make absolutely no apologies, none, for helping people in my state, in our nation, who are hurting the most."
'Oblivious' To Election Problems
As it happens, Reid is also up for re-election next year. Republicans have him in their crosshairs. But West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, who's in the liberal wing of his party, insists Reid is entirely focused on health care.
"I think he's made of steel," he said. "I mean, he's oblivious to whatever election problems he has. I've never seen anybody quite like that, be so oblivious. "
Reid, who has raised close to $10 million for his re-election and is on track to meet a $25 million goal, on Thursday sought to play down home state approval ratings that hover in the upper 30s.
"All my polling numbers are fine, and I'm continuing to do the best I can for the people of this country and the people of Nevada," he said.
David Damore of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas has been tracking Reid's political fortunes. He says the four-term senator's handling of the health care powder keg is being watched closely back home.
"I think a lot of people are looking to him to exercise his leadership, to show his value to Nevada, to show that he is a key player — not only can he deliver the pork for Nevada, but he can also have a huge say in shaping policy in a manner that may be beneficial to Nevada interests, so I think it's a big test for him," Damore said.
"It's gonna be Harry Reid's bill," said Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, a member of the GOP leadership team. He thinks Reid is making a mistake not inviting Republicans in to help merge the two health bills.
"The difficulty Sen. Reid has is, if he writes it in his back room with just the Democrats, he's going to lose support in the country for the bill, and eventually, he's going to lose votes," he said.
But if Reid does have any misgivings, none were apparent as he emerged from a meeting with his fellow Democrats on Thursday.
"We must succeed in reform," he said. "It's something the American people deserve, and we're going to complete that for them."