Harry the cat herder

Poor Harry Reid catches it from every side.

My colleagues at his hometown newspaper in Las Vegas deploy their quirkishly conservative editorial page to pummel him regularly with evident relish.

Republicans, citing his boxing background, accuse him of being entirely too pugilistic a partisan.

Some liberal Democrats charge that he plays too gently with Republicans and Democratic strays, thus squandering the potential fruits of the recent election victory.

Doesn't anyone have a good word for the Senate's majority leader?

Actually, yes. The New Republic had a piece last week which, while assessing Reid's bad and good sides, said that Democratic senators swear by him and believe he's managing them about as well as anyone possibly could.

If you disagree, perhaps you should try getting a single lasso around New York's Chuck Schumer and Nebraska's Ben Nelsen. One knows what it takes to get re-elected in New York and the other knows what it takes to get re-elected in Nebraska. These are different planets.

Reid knows to give these fellows a wide berth generally if he ever hopes to avail himself of the majority they help provide and reel them in specifically.

And when might that specific time be? Soon, actually. Reid intends to lay it on the line to enact health care reform this year. The Democrats can't count long on a popular president, 58 or 59 Senate votes and a business community finally resigned to the idea that something must be done to broaden insurance coverage and lower costs.

"The days of LBJ are over," one of Reid's aides told me by phone last week. "Anymore you've got 50-plus people (Democrats in the Senate) with their own agendas and their own money-raising and their own constituencies and their own TV images. You don't whip 'em like they used to. You herd them the best you can and try to keep your eye on your real goals."

Blanche Lincoln, a moderate Democratic senator from Arkansas, calls Reid's job "herding cats." A majority of 58 is a mixed blessing, she said. It gives you a bigger majority. It also gives you a more complex diversity of interest.

She's been one of the friskiest cats lately.

Facing re-election next year in her anti-union state, she went home last week and publicly declared her opposition to organized labor's "card check" bill. That made doubly certain what had been fairly certain already, which was that labor's coveted initiative could not pass this Congress and that Democrats, so beholden to labor in the recent elections, would be unable to deliver the political payoff.

So what did Reid do? He said, well, OK, let's move on. Then he told labor people not to give up because he was putting some centrist Democrats to work on trying to cook up a compromise from the center out.

But does Reid stand for anything other than pragmatic partisan management? Or is the Beltway process itself his principle?

To that question I'd cite an anecdote from the piece in The New Republic. Asked if he carried any special keepsakes, Reid pulled from his wallet some ragged, self-taped clippings of Republican quotes over the years. They were from the likes of Bob Dole, Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich. And they were to the effect that Medicare "has no place in the free world" and that Social Security is a "rotten ticket."

Does Reid keep those clippings around for talking points or does he cling to them to remind himself of his important differences with Republicans? Either way sounds good to me, and, anyway, it's probably both.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.