Sen. Harry Reid's move to scuttle a fellow Democrat's effort to toughen abortion restrictions in the health care bill was the plain pragmatism of a majority leader who knows where the votes are _ and faces a tough re-election next year.
In a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday event, the Nevada Democrat urged his colleagues to reject Sen. Ben Nelson's amendment to stiffen curbs on abortion in the worked-over health care bill. Reid opposes abortion but recognized the threat Nelson's amendment posed to the overall bill to expand health coverage to some 30 million uninsured Americans.
Nelson's amendment drew the opposition of senators who favor abortion rights, and jeopardized legislation that would deliver on President Barack Obama's top legislative priority and boost Reid's difficult prospects for a fifth Senate term.
"This is a health care bill. It's not an abortion bill," Reid said, carefully reading a prepared speech on the Senate floor. "We can't afford to miss the big picture."
The Senate defeated it, 54-45.
Reid's move was a model of political multitasking, a nod toward the several challenges facing him as leader in the midst of the most sensitive dealmaking of his career.
The vote itself gave senators cover on the abortion issue, so they could register their positions and say they fought for their principles. Seven Democrats supported the stiffer restrictions, while two Republicans _ Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe_ voted with the Democrats.
Reid also made clear to his constituents back home that he remained a Democrat who opposes abortion rights _ a position in line with his Mormon beliefs _ notwithstanding his drive to nix Nelson's amendment.
"I have consistently cast my vote against abortion," said Reid, 70. "To me, it's a matter of conscience."
The underlying legislation, Reid repeated, would not extend or curtail current law on abortions, which prohibits federal taxpayer money from being spent on almost all such procedures. Nelson and other abortion opponents contend that the underlying bill would allow people to purchase insurance plans that include coverage for abortions.
Reid then donned his role as leader of the Senate's 58 Democrats and two Independents with the unenviable task of keeping 60 votes required to overcome a Republican filibuster and get the bill passed by Christmas.
"Neither this amendment nor any other should overshadow the entire bill or overwhelm the entire process," Reid said. "I will not support efforts to undermine this historic legislation."
And finally, he bowed anew to Snowe, the only Republican who voted for the health care overhaul in the Senate Finance Committee and whose support, now that Nelson's is in question, he sorely needs.
Reid harked back a dozen years to 1997, when he and Snowe began a drive to improve access to contraception.
"A pro-life Democrat and a pro-choice Republican followed common sense and found common ground," Reid said. "I have always been appreciative of Senator Snowe for her cooperation and her courage."