“This Town” on Harry Reid’s Role in Ensuring a 60-vote bloc for Obamacare

October 2nd, 2013

In Unprecedented, I focus on how Harry Reid was able to keep together his 60-vote bloc to ensure that Obamacare would not be filibustered. This Town, by Mark Leibovich offers a fascinating insight into how he tried to keep his caucus not only together, but alive!

Reid stopped sleeping during the health-care debates of 2009 and early 2010. His caucus was getting harassed at town meetings by a newfangled phenomenon called the Tea Party. The White House kept wanting to know why the deliberations were taking so long. It was becoming clear that Reid was going to have to keep sixty Democratic senators in line to pass a bill; many of them were unreliable, some of them were double-dealers, and two of them were on death’s door. When then ninety-two-year-old Robert Byrd of West Virginia was hospitalized, Reid spoke to the state’s Democratic governor, Joe Manchin III, about replacing Byrd quickly “in the event that he could not carry out his duties.” Before Ted Kennedy died in August, Reid made calls to Massachusetts’s Democratic governor Deval Patrick and state lawmakers urging them to change a state law mandating that the seat stay vacant until a special election was held a few months later; this could cost Democrats a decisive vote. The law was changed and Patrick named Paul G. Kirk Jr. as interim senator. Until that special election, Reid had become preoccupied with the most basic of political duties: survival— literally, in the case of Byrd, the longest-tenured senator in history. Could the nonagenarian West Virginian hang on long enough— and remain ambulatory enough— to vote for the bill?

I didn’t realize that Reid told Deval Patrick to change that law. Remarkably, it was the election of Scott Brown that broke apart this 60-vote bloc, and forced the Democrats to rely on the reconciliation process to get it through the House, without sending it back to the Senate for a full vote with cloture.