Reid defends efforts to revamp health care as GOP criticism mounts

Sen. Harry Reid today defended his tactics in wrangling 60 Senate votes for a health care overhaul even as partisan critics labeled the Democratic majority leader’s deal-making an effort to “buy votes.”

Some of the toughest criticism related to provisions in the massive piece of legislation was aimed at benefits to the home state of health care holdout Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.

One provision extends indefinitely federal funding for Nebraska to cover 100 percent of an expansion to Medicaid, a program that provides health care to people who can’t afford their own coverage.

Even Reid’s home state of Nevada — along with most other states — will only receive 100 percent funding for three years.

In September, Reid sought five years of federal Medicaid funding for Nevada, then estimated to be worth $2.3 billion, but the time frame was later shortened to three years. Nationwide, states share the cost of Medicaid with the federal government. The money in the new legislation covers the cost of increasing the number of people eligible for the program.

“We had to do a number of different compromises,” Reid told reporters in Washington today. “That is what legislation is all about, it is the art of compromise.”

In a lengthy e-mail, Reid emphasized what he sees as benefits for Nevada in the bill, including affordable coverage for 518,000 uninsured Silver State residents, lower prescription medication costs for more than 58,000 senior citizens as a result of changes in Medicare drug coverage, and a tax credit he says could help lower premiums for 24,000 small businesses.

Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Reid’s position as leader of the Senate makes him Republicans’ biggest political target and deal-making on health care legislation will be a favored line of attack.

“The process is ugly, and Reid gets beat up along the way because of the process,” Herzik said of the work needed to pass legislation involving a major revamp of health care.

Republicans, who have sought to block the legislation, spent much of the day criticizing the bill and Reid’s efforts to attract 60 votes by getting support from every Democrat in the Senate and two independents.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele accused the Senate of “flipping the bird” at the American people with an early morning vote that set into motion procedural processes that could result in a Christmas Eve Senate vote on the legislation.

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said in an e-mail: “Proving once again that he’s simply a product of Washington, Harry Reid has actually convinced himself that doling out sweetheart deals behind closed doors is simply business as usual in order to buy votes in the Senate. This kind of out-of-touch rhetoric is exactly why Harry Reid faces abysmal poll numbers at home, and it’s why Nevadans are going to retire Harry Reid next November.”

Nevada’s Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons, whose favorable rating is just 19 percent and who needs more support from conservatives to win the gubernatorial primary in June, took several whacks at Reid and the legislation.

“Maybe he should move to Nebraska where he can do less harm to Nevada,” Gibbons wrote.

Even Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who has a political nonaggression pact with Reid, sent out a statement disparaging the bill.

“This bill ushers in a period of uncertainty and uneasiness about the future of health care in Nevada and across the country,” wrote Ensign, who is seeking to speak out more on policy as he tries to recover from an extramarital affair and a lobbying scandal that is dragging down his approval ratings with voters.

Whether Republican attacks on health care legislation will hurt Reid during his 2010 re-election campaign remains to be seen.

Herzik says that if the legislation becomes law, the opposition tactics could backfire.

“The Democrats will have a bill and the Republicans will have nothing,” he said. “They started this game with nothing and their strategy was to stop it. The strategy will have failed and their alternative is nothing.”

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at or 702-477-3861.