Thanks to the odd twists and turns of legislative practice, now that two Senate committees have passed two, different, reform packages, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has to mush them together, creating a bill that the whole Senate then gets a crack at. He can come up with pretty much any version he likes -- constrained only by the pounding he'll be taking from the White House, his Senate colleagues, lobbying groups, the media and even his Nevada constituents who get to vote on him in 2010. Oh yeah -- and he'll want to put forward something that can get the votes of 60 Senators, not perhaps for all its specifics, but to move it to consideration for amendment and debate.
If that seems to you an over-complicated and a slightly crazy way to do the nation's business, I agree.
Contemplating Harry Reid on the hot seat evoked for me a memory of historian Robert A. Caro's description in Master of the Senate of the Majority Leader's job as it existed in the 1930s and 40s. Caro's subject, Lyndon Johnson, rescued the position from the ignominy of that era, but much of Reid's situation looks familiar.
As the gentleman in the photo above apparently thinks should be the norm, Senate Majority Leaders have often found themselves trying to move a Presidential agenda while stymied by the divisions within their own caucus. In the past both political parties were much more "big tent" conglomerations than today. The gulf between ConservaDems like Kent Conrad, Evan Bayh and Blanche Lincoln and mildly progressive Dems like Tom Harkin, Ron Wyden and Chuck Schumer is nothing on what used to exist between Southern segregationists and northern liberals. Actually the present novelty is among the Republicans who have mostly lost all diversity within their caucus and are reduced to a merely obstructionist rump of knuckledraggers (minus the women from Maine perhaps).
But that doesn't mean Reid can count on Senators from his own party to do what he wants. These are very entitled people. They still derive power from committee assignments that Reid doesn't completely control -- seniority and the wishes of the whole party caucus still limit him. What Reid faces is not nearly so bad as the historical norm in which all-powerful committee chairmen ran over Majority Leaders, but Democratic Senators he alienates can undercut him if they are offended.
Aside from that ruthlessly effective bully Lyndon Johnson, Senate Majority leaders have often taken a beating in the public understanding. Here's Caro on the phenomenon in the late 1940s:
Ouch. Nothing new here. Whatever Reid does we're likely to see that scenario re-enacted I think. And, after scorn, often the next step for Majority Leaders has been electoral rejection; Reid currently polls behind just about any opponent in Nevada for 2010.
As I've written over and over here, the current health care reform debate/process highlights the various dysfunctions built into our democratic system. So far in our history we've avoided completely sinking the country over them, though it took a civil war to enshrine the triumph "free market" labor (and its exploitation) over slavery -- and thus create a path to our current, but more equal, one person, one vote political arrangements. The unrepresentative Senate and its historic quirks amplify and defend obstacles to democracy in our time. Along with fighting the domination of big money in politics, some kind of Senate reform may well move onto the national agenda if necessary initiatives are stymied there. I do count on this President to try to avert that conflict -- and don't count on his leadership if we have to have it.
If the public option is in his proposed bill, it will take 60 Senate votes to get it out. If Reid leaves it out, it will take 60 votes to get it put in. Reid can make what the people of his state and the nation want more or less attainable. You can encourage him to do the right thing.
This morning I made a small contribution at this site to run the ad below in Nevada. You can too. It's hammer Harry Reid week.