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Retiring Harry Reid vows to keep fighting for his landmark health care law

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Working closely with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi five years ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid achieved a treasured goal that had eluded Democratic leaders since Franklin Delano Roosevelt — enactment of a national health insurance program expanding coverage to most Americans.

That surely will be the historic legacy of the blunt-talking Nevada Democrat, who announced Friday that he would not run for re-election after five Senate terms. Health care reform supporters hope it will be an enduring legacy, though the law currently is threatened by a pending Supreme Court case and possible repeal by a Republican Congress.

Sen. Reid and Rep. Pelosi are credited with steering the health care reform law through to passage in March 2010 despite formidable odds, after Sen. Reid lost his 60-vote Senate supermajority with the death of Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy and his replacement by Republican Scott Brown. The Democratic duo did it through the so-called reconciliation process, which required only 51 Senate votes.

Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told the National Journal’s Dylan Scott that there would be no new health care law today without Sen. Reid.

“When it came to that bill, he gave it everything he’s got,” said Sen. Reid’s longtime aide Jim Manley. “The thing died any number of times, but he never wavered in his desire to get it done.”

“I am so happy that we were able to get the health care bill passed,” he told the New York Times.

But as Mr. Scott points out, the legislative craftiness Sen. Reid used to pass the health care reform law may yet prove its undoing, though Sen. Reid may well have had no alternative given the unyielding GOP opposition to the legislation. The problem was that the reconciliation process did not allow a House-Senate conference committee to make any needed technical corrections. That prevented the Democratic authors from spotting and correcting what many legal and political experts consider the drafting error to end all drafting errors — the phrase “an exchange established by the state.”

Those six words, at issue in the King v. Burwell case before the Supreme Court, could doom premium subsidies in states that have not established their own exchange and are using the federal marketplace, crippling the law.

“We meant to clean it up in conference, but we never got to conference,” a Democratic staffer told Mr. Scott early last year.

Until Democrats lost their Senate majority in November, Sen. Reid shrewdly managed to block relentless Republican efforts to roll back the law. But he got extremely peeved with his GOP colleagues. “Why don’t they get a life and talk about something else?“ he said.

This year and next promise more battles over the law for which he can justly claim co-authorship with Rep. Pelosi and President Barack Obama. He sent this reminder to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about those looming fights. “My friend, Senator McConnell, don’t be too elated,” he said Friday. “I am going to be here for 22 months. I am going to be doing the same thing I have done since I first came to the Senate.”

Harris Meyer writes for Modern Healthcare, a sister publication of Business Insurance.