Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faces a tough re-election fight this year. But he says the battle over health care taught him a lesson: "You can't win a fight unless you're in the fight," he says. "And once you're in the fight, you have to keep fighting."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faces a tough re-election fight this year. But he says the battle over health care taught him a lesson: "You can't win a fight unless you're in the fight," he says. "And once you're in the fight, you have to keep fighting." Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The political fate of Democratic senators Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas and Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania could be determined Tuesday. Primaries taking place in both states have their jobs on the line.
But the air of uncertainty extends to other Senate Democrats this year, including their leader, Harry Reid. His bid in Nevada for a fifth term appears at this point to be an uphill struggle.
At the main entry to Reid's office suite in the Capitol stands a small statue of Joan of Arc. The figure of the warrior saint, who was burned at the stake at age 19, wields a sword that, if you try it, can actually be unsheathed. It's a bit emblematic of Reid himself. On the day he became Democratic leader more than five years ago, after the previous leader, Tom Daschle, lost his re-election bid, Reid sought to make nice while keeping his own sword at the ready.
"I said at that time, unprepared, unscripted, that, 'I know how to fight and I know how to dance, and I'd much rather dance than fight,' " Reid recalls. "And I've tried to show that during my tenure as the leader. ... What I didn't tell everybody was I was always a better fighter than dancer."
When it comes to his dealings with Republicans, Reid has fought more than he's danced.
'You Don't Give Up'
For a time, Maine Republican Olympia Snowe was a willing partner — one of just three Republicans who voted for last year's economic stimulus bill. But after months of negotiations on the health care overhaul, Snowe ultimately dumped Reid and voted against it. Democrats, she has said, "were negotiating sweetheart deals in the dark of night. Little did I know."
Reid, though, says there was a clear lesson in the health care saga: You don't give up.
"You can't win a fight unless you're in the fight," he says. "And once you're in the fight, you have to keep fighting."
Was the fight worth it when it comes to hanging onto his job? Reid says he's certain that the more voters in Nevada learn about what the new health care law does for them, the more they're going to like it.
"But," he concedes, "as to what it does in the election ... I don't know."
Reid is currently struggling in the polls. To survive, he'll need to motivate a lot of potential voters in Nevada. About a quarter of them are Hispanic. Many put a high priority on revamping immigration laws. Reid made headlines when he told a rally in Nevada last month that he aimed to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year. At that point, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham was the only Senate Republican willing to co-sponsor such legislation. Then Graham backed out. Reid says he was bewildered.
"Lindsey Graham, for reasons that I don't fully understand, was heavily involved in a lot of things we were trying to do, and I appreciated it very much. But for reasons that ... I can't explain, he walked away from all of it; just walked away from it."
Graham, for his part, accuses Reid of rushing an immigration overhaul in hopes of getting re-elected.
"Sen. Reid is losing," Graham said recently, "and he put immigration on the table to try to help his numbers back in Nevada. No serious person believes immigration reform is going to pass."
Reid dismisses such talk. "Lindsey doesn't know Nevada. ... I am looking at immigration reform because it is important for our country."
Reid says it makes no sense that Republicans applaud Arizona for passing a law that gets tough on suspected illegal immigrants — and base part of their praise on the notion that the federal government has failed to act on immigration — and then block any action on the issue by Washington.
Still, even some of Reid's fellow Democrats think it's asking too much to push through an immigration overhaul this election year. "I think he knows that we have a pretty full calendar for the rest of the year," says Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor. "And unless we have a bill that's bipartisan, I think it's going to be hard to get it done this year."
It may be just as hard to do a climate change and energy bill this year, now that the sole Republican who had been backing that legislation has backed out. Once again, it's Graham, and the explanation, he says, is simple: "I don't want to put my name on a product that I don't think can get there."
'With Or Without Them'
Getting at least one Republican to go along with them has become paramount to Democrats, since they're a vote shy of the 60 they need to thwart a filibuster. Reid thinks Republicans are showing a new willingness to work with Democrats on the financial regulatory overhaul moving through the Senate. He says the wall of GOP opposition may be crumbling. Republicans, he says, realize "we're going to do it with or without them. And I'd rather do it with them."
Reid says he would rather dance, that is, than fight. But even on the Wall Street rules makeover, it took a fight just to bring up the bill — three times in three days Reid held votes to break a GOP filibuster; on the third try, he succeeded. "One thing that I have tried to do as the leader of this Senate is to let people know you may knock us down once," he says, "but we'll just get back up and try it again."
Fighting words — from a man who says he'd rather dance.