STEVE INSKEEP, host:
As big as it was, the stimulus bill was fairly simple compared to what the Senate is considering now. Lawmakers are about to debate a health care bill. Now, there are 60 Democrats in the Senate, a big majority. And, in theory, that's enough to keep opponents from blocking the measure. In reality, it will be a struggle to keep liberals and moderates together. That challenge will belong to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. This former amateur boxer from Nevada is now playing referee in what may be his biggest fight yet.
NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA: Harry Reid hopes to pull together a hybrid health care bill that can win over all 60 members of his Democratic caucus and maybe even pick up some Republican support. Even Reid's fellow Democrats shake their heads in wonder at the task he's set himself. Mark Pryor is a Democrat from Arkansas.
Senator MARK PRYOR (Democrat, Arkansas): I heard one of my colleagues today say, is he Harry Reid or Harry Houdini?
WELNA: On Wednesday, a day after Maine Senator Olympia Snowe became the first Republican in Congress to vote for a health care bill, Majority Leader Reid stopped to talk to reporters. He was on his way to the first of what will likely be many closed-door meetings with top White House officials and the two Democrats whose committees produced health care bills. Reid took a swipe at his Republican colleagues when told they wanted to spend months debating the bill he's trying to hammer out.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): I believe that the Republican leader and all of his colleagues, with the exception of a couple there — one of whom is Senator Snowe, and there are a couple others - want to do anything that they can do not to have a bill.
WELNA: Such blunt questioning of Republican's motives is vintage Harry Reid. Georgetown University's Stephen Wayne says it serves to foster us-versus-them solidarity in a Democratic caucus that's divided over key health care issues.
Mr. STEPHEN WAYNE (Georgetown University): He's appealing to Democratic unity, and the one thing all the Democrats can agree on is that the Republicans seem to be nay-sayers in this.
WELNA: But Reid also needs the support of at least some Republicans, if only to provide political cover for fence-sitting Democrats to back whatever bill he comes up with. By yesterday, Reid had softened his rhetoric, saying he was confident more GOP senators than just Olympia Snowe would end up on his side.
Senator REID: I've spoken to two other Republicans today on health care, and who knows? We may get help from one of those two or both of those, so we're not writing off the Republicans.
WELNA: It's the same one-on-one approach that Reid used successfully earlier this year to get three Republican senators behind President Obama's stimulus package. Georgetown's Stephen Wayne says Reid is no hard-charging Lyndon Johnson; rather, Reid strikes a soft stance to make a hard sell.
Mr. WAYNE: He has a tenacity. He also tends to have a low-key approach; he tends to be a person who wants to placate others.
WELNA: Reid declined to be interviewed for this report. But Max Baucus, who is one of the two committee chairmen whose bills Reid is blending, says the majority leader is indeed the right man for the job.
Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana): I mean he's a conciliatory - I mean he's a moderator. He's — he's been leader. As leader you've got to bring people together. That's the nature of leader and he's very good at it."
WELNA: Indeed, one of the first concessions Baucus made on the centrist health care bill his Finance Committee produced was to Reid. The majority leader demanded, and got, a multiyear exemption from higher Medicaid rates for his state and three others with high unemployment.
Republicans, including Arizona's John McCain, cried foul.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Who pays? The other states - duh.
WELNA: But Reid stood his ground.
Senator REID: The people of Nevada are hurting and I make absolutely no apologies, none, for helping people in my state, in our nation, who are hurting the most.
WELNA: As it happens, Reid is also up for re-election next year. Republicans have him in their crosshairs. But West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, who's in the liberal wing of his party, insists Reid is entirely focused on health care.
Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): I think he's made of steel. You know, I mean, he's oblivious to whatever election problems he has. I've never seen anybody quite like that, be so oblivious.
WELNA: Yesterday Reid sought to play down home state approval ratings that hover in the upper 30s.
Senator REID: All my polling numbers are fine, and I'm continuing to do the best I can for the people of this country and the people of Nevada.
WELNA: David Damore of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas has been tracking Reid's political fortunes. He says the four-term senator's handling of the health care powder keg is being watched closely back home.
Mr. DAVID DAMORE (University of Nevada, Las Vegas): I think a lot of people are looking at him to exercise his leadership, to show his value to Nevada, to show that he is a key player — not only can he deliver the pork for Nevada, but he can also have a huge say in shaping policy in a manner that may be beneficial to Nevada interests, so I think it's a big test for him.
Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee): It's going to be Harry Reid's bill.
WELNA: That's Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, a member of the GOP leadership team. He thinks Reid is making a mistake not inviting Republicans in to help merge the two health bills.
Senator ALEXANDER: The difficulty Senator Reid has is, if he writes it in his back room with just the Democrats, he's going to lose support in the country for the bill, and eventually he's going to lose votes.
WELNA: But if Reid does have any misgivings, none were apparent as he emerged from a meeting with his fellow Democrats yesterday.
Senator REID: We must succeed in reform. It's something the American people deserve, and we're going to complete that for them.
WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.