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Nineteen Minutes In a Car With Harry Reid

4 years ago
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LAS VEGAS – Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, was having second thoughts – or was he? – about the way he had characterized people who are disrupting town halls with "lies, innuendo and rumor," and not letting others speak. They are, he had said, "evil-mongers."
A day after tossing out the term "evil-mongers" in the closing speech of his annual clean energy conference, Reid was alternating between pride in his coinage and knowing that he probably should be trying to defuse, not escalate, the turmoil erupting at town meetings across the country on health care reform.
"It was an original with me. I maybe could have been less descriptive," Reid said. He also said, "I doubt that you'll hear it from me again." But a few minutes later, he couldn't resist a sardonic little joke. "I feel I haven't done anything to embarrass them," Reid said of his children. "Except maybe call somebody an evil-monger."
I interviewed Reid Tuesday between stops on a tour of clean energy projects in and around Las Vegas. That morning, a new Republican poll of the 2010 Senate contest here showed state GOP Chairwoman Sue Lowden, a potential rival, six points ahead of him. But Reid also had good news – GOP Rep. Dean Heller said he would stay in the House rather than challenge Reid. Biggest threat? "Yup," Reid said. Now gone? "Gone," he said happily.
The man from Searchlight is living a double life these days. At home, his favorability ratings are in the 30s and he's a prime target for state and national Republicans. In Washington, he's at the epicenter of power, one of a handful of people who can make things happen – whether it's bringing Bill Clinton, Al Gore and T. Boone Pickens to Vegas for a clean energy summit, or figuring out how to enact the health and energy reforms that top President Obama's agenda. We talked about all of that, as well as his re-election bid and his son Rory's race for governor. Yes, there could be two Reids at the top of the ticket next year in Nevada. Here's how our conversation went:
Reid left no doubt he intends to get a health reform bill passed in the Senate, no matter what erupts at town hall meetings and whether any Republicans support the end result. "We can't let the insurance industry win another round. We're going to win this round," he said.
If the bill doesn't have a public insurance plan to compete with private ones, do the insurance companies win? I asked. "The public option is something that the vast majority of Americans want. They know that the enemy is the insurance industry," Reid said. But he added that the public option "is not the only thing that's important." It's also important, he said, to make sure insurance companies can't deny policies to people who have pre-existing conditions or drop people if they develop a problem.
The House, with a large Democratic majority, is expected to pass a bill with a public option in it. If the Senate version doesn't have one, I asked, does the public option have a shot when Senate and House negotiators meet to smooth out their differences in a conference committee?
"I'm not going to -- I have to get a bill off the floor," Reid said with a low chuckle. "So I'm not going to be threatening or suggesting anything that might come in conference. Get the picture?" I did.
The titanic health care battle will no doubt be equaled by the titanic battle over climate change, which is next in line in the Senate. The House passed a landmark bill that caps overall carbon emissions for the first time and nudges the economy toward jobs in conservation and renewables. The most controversial aspect is a "cap and trade" system under which polluters would get emissions permits that they could buy and sell.
In Washington, there's a sense that the Senate will be disinclined to dive in. Too much to ask after health? I asked Reid. "We're going to try. I think we can get it done," he said. Maybe parts of it? Maybe without cap-and-trade? Reid didn't answer directly. Instead he said that five committees are working on energy and compromises are inevitable. He is committed, he said, to "major energy legislation." Whatever that may be.
Reid's phone rang. It was Jackie Dodd reporting on her husband, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut. His surgery for prostate cancer was over and went well. Reid tells her his bond with Dodd is a "joy to my soul and I so appreciate your call."
Next up for us, Reid's polls. Why are they so low? Nevada politics pundit Jon Ralston this week called Reid a man "who thinks scorching the earth is political climate change he can believe in." Reid, citing the Lowden poll, tossed off a series of remarks that illustrated Ralston's point. "I like Sue Lowden. Her husband and I are close friends. She couldn't get elected to the state Senate. She was against mammograms for women," he said without taking a breath.
(Actually, Lowden did get elected to the state Senate, defeating the Democratic majority leader in 1992, but lost her try for a second term -- not third as I initially wrote. Lowden strategist Robert Uithoven called it "typical Harry Reid . . . to launch an attack out of the gate like that." He said the mammogram charge stemmed from a long-ago vote against a bloated budget bill. "I can tell you that Sue Lowden is not opposed to providing funding for mammograms for women," he said.)
Reid said his own low ratings have to do with Nevada's mushrooming population – 600,000 newcomers in the last dozen years. "Most people don't know me," he said. "All they see is me fighting (former president George W.) Bush on the war, privatization of Social Security. They see me as a real partisan. My career in Nevada has been made on my being a moderate. People don't know where I was born, how I was raised, what I had to do to get where I am now, and we're going to tell that story."
The story involves growing up poor without indoor plumbing, and Reid anticipates having $25 million to tell it. He had raised nearly $11 million as of June 30, and had $7 million on hand.
We moved on to Rory Reid, the Las Vegas-based chairman of the Clark County Commission. It's not clear yet if he will have primary competition, but there is a real possibility that both Reids will be running in the general election next year. Is Nevada ready for a Reid dynasty? And who would be helped or hurt by a double-decker Reid ticket? Why are Rory's negatives already at 25 percent? And how bad is it for him that his father's are nearly twice that high?
It's complicated. The e-mail address for Rory Reid's campaign manager is Rory2010.com, no Reid. Rory Reid did not respond to several attempts to contact him. Harry Reid tried to suggest a vast political distance between himself and his son. "My son is going to fall or succeed on his own," he said. "He can run on his own laurels. He doesn't need all my baggage to be worried about." Would they campaign together? "I don't see us campaigning together," Reid said, adding deadpan, "I don't want to try to get elected based on how good my son is." He insisted he does not strategize with Rory about the race: "He really has to do this on his own."
The phone rang again. "Hi Rahm," Reid said. It was White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, calling about Heller's decision not to run for the Senate. "We had a wonderful energy conference," Reid said, and suggested the White House visit the massive CityCenter residential and entertainment complex due to open in December in Las Vegas. The builders spent an extra $500 million to get it certified as environmentally friendly in design and construction. "There is no place like it in the world," Reid said. He moved on to Middle East peace, health care and Chris Dodd before hanging up.
Rory Reid has hired several campaign aides and is raising money, but there's no Web site or formal announcement as yet. There's no doubt he's in, right? I asked his dad, and got this curious response: "He's announced he's running, as far as I know," Reid said, and turned to an aide. "Rory's running, isn't he?" (Update: The aide in question, spokesman Jon Summers, explained Reid's comments this way in a follow-up e-mail: "Rory Reid is a grown man who makes his own decisions. Sen. Reid is staying out of it.")
Reid was much more comfortable answering a question about his relationship with the state's spectacularly unpopular Republican governor, Jim Gibbons. "I thought it was great until the last little bit," Reid said. "He was upset because I didn't invite him to the energy conference." Why wasn't Gibbons invited? "It would be embarrassing to have the governor there," Reid said flatly. "He's the most anti-environmentalist guy in the state!"
Gibbons supports new coal plants, refused to join a group trying to reduce global warming in the West, and vetoed a bill that would have expanded the use of solar panels. Still, the Nevada League of Conservation Voters gave him a passing grade of C-minus in its most recent report, saying he is interested in conservation and renewable energy. Most anti-environmentalist guy in the state? That's probably more descriptive as opposed to less, by Reid's standard. I'll give him credit for some restraint. At least he didn't call Gibbons an evil-monger.

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