Reid hit, feted at business luncheon

Did somebody say Harry Reid was in the building?

The Four Seasons transformed Wednesday from a blissful, quiet getaway to the center of a political storm, as protesters lined up outside the four-star hotel to picket the Senate majority leader, whom recent Review-Journal polls show losing to, well, any Republican who might run against him in 2010.

Reid stopped by the Four Seasons to address the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce's monthly membership luncheon. But while protesters outside waved American flags and wielded signs blaring "Impeach Obama" and "Dump Reid," the atmosphere inside proved decidedly more supportive.

Reid held court from the dais, facing a friendly crowd of nearly 500 for his brief speech and extended question-and-answer session.

He won a standing ovation. He cracked jokes about saving the Las Vegas Review-Journal, whose editorial pages opine against some of Reid's policies, to preserve the Las Vegas Sun section, a newspaper friendlier to the senator. He charmed the crowd with folksy stories about his grandchildren. He even waxed wistful about a failed attempt to hire away chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Kara Kelley. And spontaneous applause punctuated several of his answers.

Some of Reid's greatest hits, based on the biggest crowd response:

• Federal antitrust laws banning price collusion exempt just two groups: Health care insurers and Major League Baseball. Reid said he'd like to change the law to prohibit insurers from collaborating on pricing. (He didn't touch Major League Baseball.)

• Most of the profits pharmaceutical companies earn go to advertising rather than to development of new drugs, Reid said. The answer? Limits on drugmakers' marketing campaigns.

• Asked how the federal government can pay for looming entitlement deficits for Social Security and Medicare while piling on another $1 trillion for health care reform, Reid responded, "I hope all of you ask that when we talk about spending $1 trillion on a war of choice."

Other highlights from Reid's speech included the revelation that Reid will give bipartisanship a two-week trial period when the Senate reconvenes in early September to discuss health care reform. If Republicans still aren't on board by mid- to late September, Reid said he'll be ready to deploy reconciliation, which would allow passage of a bill with a 51-vote majority rather than a 60-vote, filibuster-proof bloc.

Reconciliation would allow reform to pass even if all 40 Senate Republicans and a handful of conservative Democrats oppose it.

Reid also said the Employee Free Choice Act, designed to help unions organize more easily through card-check votes and mandatory binding arbitration, has fallen off the Senate's radar for now.

"We have too many other things on our plate," he said.

Reid's warm reception couldn't mask all signs of today's political turbulence. Unlike other chamber luncheons, the crowd couldn't ask direct questions. Instead, members submitted their questions in advance via e-mail, and Chairman Steve Hill culled about half a dozen queries from 12 pages of suggestions. (Cara Roberts, a chamber spokeswoman, said the e-mailed questions were the best way to make the most efficient and effective use of Reid's time, given the volume of attendees, and Reid did not see the questions or the topics in advance.)

If submissions were any indication, chamber members fret over the same hot-button issues -- health care reform, carbon cap-and-trade, ballooning federal deficits and entitlement spending -- that have swept legions of concerned citizens into town halls across the country.

On health care reform, Reid said one-sixth of every dollar in the gross domestic product goes to health care. That figure will jump to more than one-third by 2020 if the federal government doesn't intercede.

"It's our obligation and our goal to bend the cost curve," he said.

How? By stemming unnecessary procedures, finding savings in Medicare and Medicaid and crafting preventive-care programs. Congress should also consider taxing expensive "Cadillac" insurance plans with especially big benefits, and Medicare needs to negotiate lower drug prices. The former trial attorney even hinted at the need for tort reform, citing a possible system whereby a screening panel would assess potential malpractice cases' merit.

People whose lawsuits receive the thumbs-down could still sue, but they'd be on the hook for penalties and costs if they lost in court.

Hill had to ask Reid twice to account for the $1 trillion price tag of health care reform.

"When we talk about cost, there's a lot of cost in terms of what we can save," Reid responded.

Hill also needed to ask Reid repeatedly whether the federal government should play a greater role in health care.

"Yes. If we let it go, no one will be able to afford care in 11 years," Reid finally answered. "The government needs to take a look at the exorbitant profits insurance companies are making, and the pharmaceutical companies need to be looked at. Very few industries are as profitable as pharmaceuticals."

Asked about the economy and environmental policies, Reid said he has no doubt the planet is warming because of fossil fuels. He touted his role in killing planned coal-fired power plants and said Congress should make it easier to build electric transmission lines to send power from renewable energy to markets nationwide.

Hill also quizzed Reid on the role the federal government should claim in righting Nevada's economy, which has some of country's highest foreclosure and unemployment rates.

Reid answered by pointing to help he proffered in obtaining debt cancellations for major local resort operators such as Station Casinos and Harrah's Entertainment. The move saved thousands of jobs, Reid said.

He added that federal stimulus programs, which he said now total $1.2 trillion, saved the planet from economic catastrophe.

"We said, 'The only money in the world is in Washington. We'd better spend it, or there'll be a depression across the world,'" Reid said.

The only flaw in the stimulus, Reid said, was that it could have used an additional $100 billion for infrastructure and development.

"We know we have to pay it back," he said of the stimulus.

Several high-profile Nevada politicos and officials were in the audience, including state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas; Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen; Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown; and Clark County School District Superintendent Walt Rulffes.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at or 702-380-4512.