Two of the three Democrats charged with producing a Senate healthcare bill to take to the floor – Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut – face tough reelection bids in 2010.
Senate leaders are used to being lightening rods. But the overhaul of the US healthcare system sets up a perfect storm of competing interests, especially for Democrats.
As leader of a 60-member majority, Senator Reid has the votes to move major legislation. But his caucus is divided on issues ranging from costs of the plan to the scope of a public option.
This week, progressive activists rallied outside Senator Reid’s office building to call for the expulsion of moderates who vote against the bill. Liberal bloggers ramped up calls for Reid’s dismissal if he fails to include a robust public option. Labor unions called on Democrats to reject a proposed tax on generous health plans – something moderate Democrats deem essential.
At the same time, Reid has to keep an eye on politics at home, where constituents face one of the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the nation.
Last month, Reid improved the health bill for Nevada by winning assurances that Nevada would be one of only four states to be fully funded by the federal government for the first five years of expansion of Medicaid – a key element in plans to expand health coverage.
Reid pledged to Nevadans that state budgets would not be hard hit by this new requirement.
Asked today whether carrying the load for the Democrats as majority was worth ending his career in the Senate, Reid said, “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.”
But political analysts say that Reid’s approval ratings are are registering only in the mid-30s against lesser known challengers. On Sunday, a Mason Dixon poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review Journal had Reid losing to Nevada Republican chairwoman Sue Lowden by 10 points and to GOP businessman Danny Tarkanian by 5 points.
“His poll numbers are terrible. Why else would he go to the air 383 days before the election?” says Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston.
The last Democrat to serve as Senate majority leader, Sen. Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, lost his 2004 reelection bid – an outcome that stunned Senate Democrats. The last Senate Democratic leader to lose a reelection bid had been in 1952.
“Senator Reid and Daschle share a problem. One of them is that when you have to lead your party at a national level, it’s hard to go home and run as a moderate,” says Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report.
Senator Dodd, who led the markup of healthcare reform legislation in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, also faces the race of his life in Connecticut.
As chair of the Banking, House, and Urban Affairs Committee, he is also leading negotiations over financial regulation that could also play in his reelection campaign.
Dodd’s poll numbers are improving, but his approval ratings are still below 50 percent. He trails former US Rep. Rob Simmons 44 to 39 percent in a possible matchup, according to a Quinnipiac University poll last month.
“A lot of his problems stem from actions he’s already taken,” says Cook Political Report analyst Ms. Duffy. He’s hearing from voters that “you were supposed to be watching and instead you were off running for president and kind of abandoned the ship. This happened on your watch.”
Healthcare is another high profile opportunity to shine at home – or not, she says.
"This year alone, 28,000 people in the state of Connecticut have lost their health care because of unemployent. In the last nine years in my state, premium costs have gone from around $6,000 for a family of four to around $12,000 a year, and every indication is those numbers are going to keep going up," Dodd said at a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, as closed-door talks began.
"We have no other choice than to get this accomplished," he said.
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