A phone call from Sen. Reid

Here’s a little vignette to illustrate how modern American politics can work, or not, in case it isn’t clear to you already.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, proud to have forged a compromise to take an incremental but historic step forward in health insurance reform, calls a news conference. He wants to boast that no less than the American Medical Association has endorsed his bill.

The AMA doesn’t represent the full expanse of American physicians the way it once did. Some doctors tell me they’re not members because the dirty liberals have taken over.

So now you can’t even have a major professional association, because politics are so polarized.

But Reid wouldn’t mind leaving the impression that all doctors are with him.

Reid gets asked at this news conference about other things, including the fact that he granted special Medicaid favors to the states of two recalcitrant Democratic senators, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, to clinch their votes for his health bill.

Harry says there’s nothing wrong with that. He says it’s all the art of politics and political representation. He says it doesn’t speak well for any senator who didn’t get some special interest into the bill.

He did not say “pork.” He did not say “special financial favor for his state.” He said matter of special interest.

So the Republicans, who are intending to take out centrist Democratic senator Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas next year, put out a news release saying that Reid had just thrown Lincoln under the bus. She provided the vital 60th vote to move the bill to debate, you see, but she received no known special spending for her state.

I’d previously asked Lincoln’s staff about that and been told that she indeed did not “trade her vote,” but that she held out instead for special spending and tax advantages to help small businesses everywhere, not just in her state, to be able to afford health insurance.

Anyway, how do Republicans manage to criticize both sweetheart deals and then a senator who didn’t take one?

I do a little blog post to those effects.

An hour or so later, I pick up the phone and it’s Harry Reid.

We do a little chit-chat about the fact that the Las Vegas Review-Journal runs my column on Sundays and about his semi-famous disenchantment with the editorial page slant of that particular publication.

I accuse him of calling at the insistence of Blanche Lincoln to repair any damage from what he’d just said at the news conference.

He says oh, no, it’s not like that. He says someone had given him a note to call me and, well, the note simply said that he needed to make sure I and the people of Arkansas were aware of the vital role Lincoln had played in working out this health care bill.

He says she forged exemptions from insurance mandates and penalties for Wal-Mart — Arkansas-based, he reminded me — and major retailers who hire large numbers of temporary seasonal employees, at Christmas, for example, for periods shorter than 60 days.

He says she single-handedly championed the cause of small businesses, which would help 24,000 small businesses in Nevada and surely a similar number in Arkansas.

Lincoln was as vital as any senator in fashioning the final compromise, Reid tells me.

Then, the very next morning, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee puts out a news release saying it’s remarkable that Blanche Lincoln had cried to Harry Reid to please call an Arkansas columnist and brag that she had gone to bat to take money from Arkansas seniors (i.e., cuts in the rate of Medicare spending growth, largely through Medicare Advantage programs) and redistribute it to small businesses all over the country.

I have to admire the creativity. I can only pity those trying to find any simple truth.

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.

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