It was already early November. The Senate was taking too long.

The opportunity to pass President Barack Obama's top domestic priority before year's end seemed to be slipping away. It was already early November. The Senate was taking too long.

With Democratic senators and aides gathered in a conference room outside Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's Capitol office, an impatient Emanuel wanted to know: Was there a chance the chamber could still act in the seven weeks before Christmas?

For the White House chief of staff, notoriously impatient to begin with and conditioned by years of experience in the fast-paced House, the Senate's famously sluggish pace was maddening. For veterans of the Senate, an institution that likes to call itself the world's greatest deliberative body, Emanuel's expectation of a brisk timetable was fantasy.

It was a crucial moment. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told Emanuel there was one chance it could be done: The White House would have to step back and trust the Senate majority leader.
If the process opened the Democrats to criticism, it also revealed that the oft-fractious party could achieve a remarkable degree of unity. And the key was two particular qualities that the majority leader possessed in abundance: an unparalleled understanding of the arcane institution he leads and a sure grasp of the particular needs of the individual lawmakers who serve there.

It was those two qualities that carried the Democrats through crisis after crisis and now to the brink of achieving a decades-long dream.

At times, Reid gambled. When deals fell apart, he gently pulled senators back to the negotiating table. In the end, the Democratic leader persuaded "public option" purists to accept that their holy grail was out of reach. He led reluctant Democrats to accommodate drug industry interests.

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