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Harry Reid playing Santa with your money

By Ed Rollins, CNN Senior Political Contributor
  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got 60 senators to support ending debate on health bill
  • Ed Rollins says deals were cut as bill was drafted privately
  • He says senators traded their votes for the public's money and White House didn't object
  • It's a long way from candidate Obama's promise to eliminate earmarks, Rollins says

Editor's note: Ed Rollins, a senior political contributor for CNN, is senior presidential fellow at the Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University. He was White House political director for President Reagan and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

New York (CNN) -- We are approaching the eve of Christmas and maybe in that spirit, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid morphed into Santa Claus, giving out presents to the little boys and girls who were naughty and (not so) nice this year.

Of course, he was not using his own money.

America's overused credit card, issued by the Bank of China, may have to be used one more time to pay for Reid's deals. The majority leader traded to help ensure the votes of Sens. Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, Chris Dodd, Bernie Sanders and others representing 11 states by giving them special perks for staying on the health care bus that's about to drive us all over the financial cliff.

They may argue they weren't bribed, but they certainly were rewarded. The price was enormous.

Many decades ago when I was getting my start in politics, one of my first mentors was the legendary Democratic speaker of the California Assembly, the late Jesse Unruh.

On one of the many days when "Big Daddy," as he was affectionately and fearfully named, was teaching me the fundamentals of "real politics" as opposed to that "college crap," he said: "Every man has a price. [There were few women around in politics then]. And to be successful in this business, you've got to figure out what that price is."

"For some it's money, for some it's women and for some it's liquor. Every so often you find one who will take your money, drink your liquor, take advantage of the women -- and still vote against you. Those you can't buy, but you can usually rent them for a vote or two."

I doubt Harry Reid doled out any women or liquor, but he sure spread a lot of taxpayers' money around.

When Reid said he had his 60 votes a few weeks ago, he was bluffing. But by going behind closed doors, writing a secret bill known only to staff drafters, making the Senate vote at 1 a.m. (11 p.m. Las Vegas time) and horse trading with the best of them, he made good on his bet.

Reid has been around gambling all his life. He got his start in politics as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission. He is a member of the Nevada Gaming Hall of Fame. He knows the odds are always on the side of the establishment. Like the big gambling casinos that have backed him for years, he knows that you have to dole the perks out.

Reid is gambling his own career with this bill. He is among the most vulnerable incumbents up for re-election in 2010 and recently spent a million dollars in campaign funds to reintroduce himself to Nevada voters . Unfortunately for him, Nevada voters already know him. (He has served in one office or another for four decades.)

Nevada polls show him with only 38 percent approval, and 50 percent have a negative opinion.

The majority leader is entitled to gamble his own career, but he is not entitled to gamble with ours. We still don't what this bill is going to cost or how it will work. We have yet to know how we will get the $500 million in Medicare costs savings it anticipates.

But Reid set the tone and laid down the mantra for the rest of the negotiations when he said at his Monday news conference:

"I don't know if there is a senator that doesn't have something in this bill that was important to them. And if they don't have something in it important to them, then it doesn't speak well of them."

Already, Nelson said that three senators approached him on the Senate floor and said they want the same deal he got.

So for those of you who didn't get yours, follow Harry's lead; the Treasury's still open and the ink's not dry on the deal. Jump in that pig trough and get yours.

And don't worry about the White House objecting. The president's tone was set by the White House's chief spokesman, David Axelrod, on the Sunday talk shows, who said on CNN's "State of the Union":

"Every senator uses whatever leverage they have to help their states. That's the way it has been. That's the way it will always be."

Maybe that's the way it is in Chicago -- Axelrod's home as well as that of the president's and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Sure, deal-making is a tradition in Congress, too, but rarely has it been so brazen, so private and with so many taxpayer dollars at stake.

These deals were done exclusively by the Senate majority leader and his staff. When President Reagan raised taxes in 1982, trades were made to get enough Republicans to support the bill. But the White House was involved, and the congressional leadership and the Office of Management and Budget were at the table. Health reform will end up being the most expensive piece of legislation in history and so few know what has been promised.

It's a long way from the new tone President Obama promised as a candidate when he stated, "We can no longer accept a process that doles out earmarks based on a member of Congress' seniority, rather than the merit of the project."

What we do know is that the most significant and far reaching piece of legislation in decades was passed in the middle of the night and drafted behind closed doors. I hope that somewhere along the line, the title of the bill: "The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" will not get lost in all the horse trading and special interest brokering.

We do need to protect the patient and offer care that is affordable for us and the next generation. And the way it's always been won't be the way it ends up, I hope.

With that wish, let me add: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and may we not forget our troops in far-off lands battling for our freedoms.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Rollins.