Ever since Sen. Max Baucus proposed his 223-page health care reform last Wednesday, he and his plan have been called everything from "the worst piece of heath care legislation" in 30 years to "a big congressional punt." Funnyman Bill Maher jabbed, "It's everything you could want in a reform bill—you know, except reform. It is a watered-down, ineffectual blow job to the health insurance industry." And those were some of the nicer reviews.
Here's the thing: Rushing to judgment on Baucus' bill now is like reviewing Titanic at the 60-minute mark, long before the film's climactic conclusion. Uh, bad example. But you get the point.
Baucus proposed his bill with every intention of seeing it change. Unlike some other legislation that gets force-fed to the public and sugarcoated by incessant cheerleading (cough, Tester's forest jobs bill), Montana's senior senator offered up the most detailed health care proposal available and then opened it up for honest debate. Early indications from Senate Finance Committee proceedings indicate Baucus may even be leaning left—as Democratic voters have long hoped—on some of the bill's key changes.
Baucus told reporters at the University of Montana last week, just a few days after a hopeful public deemed his proposal less than perfect, that he was satisfied with the response. It made no sense at the time (and, frankly, listening to Baucus live, he rarely makes sense.) It was as if Baucus had exchanged his rose-colored glasses for blinders. But now his answers are starting to become clear.
"I'm very pleased," he said repeatedly, because he thinks the bill is "about in the middle, it's balanced, it's broad-based, it's common sense, it doesn't go too far in one direction or the other."
In other words, it's the perfect starting point to continued negotiations. As the push to reform health care nears the 11th hour, Baucus' middle-of-the-road, malleable approach might—still—be the only path to getting something passed. And, as he rightly says, something must pass.
Getting there is still months away, meaning those who have rushed to judge Baucus may have spoken too soon. With the vaunted "Gang of Six" now broken up and the negotiations largely within Baucus' own party, he may even be willing to abandon his bipartisan instincts and the health care companies that filled his coffers, and finally satisfy his base. We're not calling his change of heart imminent, but it's certainly possible—more so today than ever before. And for that, we're willing to reserve our opinion and hold out hope for actual reform. Then again, we always thought Leo'd pull through in the end, too.