Two Senate leaders trying to steer a pair of President Barack Obama's high-stakes initiatives through Congress are being dogged by re-election worries, and it's not clear whether their legislative prominence will help or hurt them.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., are trailing in early polls, and Republicans are eager to topple them in next year's elections.
They also are central players in two of the most ambitious and hotly contested agenda items in decades. Reid is scratching and clawing to find enough Senate votes to overhaul the nation's health care system. And Dodd, as chairman of the banking committee, is pushing a massive bill to re-regulate the nation's financial institutions following the mortgage meltdown and economic crisis.
Policy-making in Congress has long mixed with rawboned politics. But seldom does the focus fall so clearly on two powerful lawmakers who, despite their seniority and influence, are in real danger of being voted out of office.
Obama is well aware that two of his top priorities are being shepherded by Democratic senators who badly need to have home-state voters view them more favorably. Administration aides say the president is responding in two ways: Helping Reid and Dodd raise early campaign money; and, especially with Dodd, giving them leeway to deviate from administration proposals for now, knowing there is time to bend the bills more to Obama's liking before final votes occur.
Obama adviser David Axelrod said the president strongly admires Reid and Dodd, and believes they best serve their home-state constituents by being national leaders on big issues such as health care and financial oversight.
"If health insurance reform passes, it will be an enormous accomplishment for Senator Reid," Axelrod said in an interview. "The same is true on financial reform" for Dodd, he said.
Democrats are doing their best to help Dodd, a senator's son who joined the Senate himself in 1981. They let him preside over the chamber when a crucial health care vote was taken Saturday night, and they've given him other chances to go before TV cameras during recent events related to health care and finances.
Advocacy groups are carefully watching Reid and Dodd for signs of shaping the bills to help their re-election campaigns. Some claim to see such evidence, while others say it would be difficult for either senator to manipulate the massive, complex legislation in ways to appeal to ordinary voters.
In Dodd's case, business groups say his financial regulation bill has more populist features than do Obama's proposals and a House version. For example, Dodd would strip the Federal Reserve of its power to regulate banks, and consolidate banking oversight under one regulatory agency rather than several. Some have accused him of "Fed-bashing."
Gary Rose, a politics professor at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, said Dodd "has consciously tried to transform himself into a populist. It's almost transparent."
Dodd called the comments mystifying, saying he has been consistent on consumer issues for years.
Besides, he said in an interview, pushing tough industry regulations is a dubious strategy for a politician from Connecticut, where the insurance, pharmaceutical and hedge fund industries employ thousands.
If his overarching goal is to be re-elected, Dodd said, "I might be thinking of a different approach."
A recent Quinnipiac poll in Connecticut found Dodd trailing potential GOP challenger Rob Simmons, a former House member, 49 percent to 38 percent. A lesser-known Republican also led Dodd in a hypothetical matchup.
Quinnipiac poll director Doug Schwartz said Dodd hurt himself with state voters by moving to Iowa during his unsuccessful bid for the 2008 presidential nomination, and by obtaining a mortgage loan through a company's "VIP" program. Worst of all, Schwartz said, was Dodd's involvement in a bill that allowed bonuses for executives at insurance giant AIG, which proved deeply unpopular.
Schwartz questioned whether anything Dodd does as banking committee chairman will appeal to voters who feel he has lost touch with them. "You could conclude that for all the legislative action he does, it's not helping him any," Schwartz said.
In a similar vein, many Nevada voters seem to have grown tired of Reid after 23 years in the Senate. A poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal found him 10 percentage points behind Nevada GOP chairwoman Sue Lowden, one of several Republicans vying to oppose him next year. Half of Nevada's voters had an unfavorable view of Reid.
Reid's friends fear echoes of Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader who lost a 2004 re-election bid in South Dakota amid claims that he showed more allegiance to a national, liberal-leaning agenda than to his conservative state.
Reid spokesman Jim Manley dismisses the comparison. Nevada is less conservative than South Dakota, he said, and Reid is airing early TV ads to introduce himself to thousands of people who have moved to the state since his last election.
Manley said it's absurd to claim that Reid supported a government-run insurance plan in the health care bill to appeal to a key sector of Nevada voters. "He's always been a strong proponent of the public option," Manley said.
Axelrod, the president's top political strategist, said he does not think Reid or Dodd "made any political calculations on these issues. That said, they have a lot to gain by being successful."
Whether Reid can steer a health care bill to final passage is unclear. He barely averted a Republican filibuster on Saturday by making concessions to a couple of centrist Democrats. But the two, and a few other party moderates, warn that they may not vote for the bill in December unless more changes are made.
The changes could anger liberal Democrats, placing Reid in the familiar but difficult spot of trying to craft a compromise. It's hard work, and Daschle found that it paid poor dividends at election time.
Still, Manley said, Reid strongly feels that on balance, being the majority leader is a plus.
By next fall, Republicans hope to employ enough political jujitsu to turn Reid's and Dodd's leadership powers against them.