As Sen. Max Baucus presides over America's first attempt at comprehensive health care reform in 15 years, two opposing views of the Montana Democrat emerge.
One view suggests Baucus is fulfilling his political destiny. The Montana senator, a Democrat and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, has prepared his entire 34-year career in Congress for this role. He's a savvy centrist. His political independence and the relationships he's fostered with senators on both sides of the aisle make him uniquely suited to broker intensely complicated negotiations among the most powerful people and special interests in Washington, D.C. Colleagues claim no one works harder than Baucus. He's spent more than a year—beginning well before President Obama took office and made health care reform his top domestic priority—holding hearings and educating committee members on the nuances of the issue. Baucus himself calls the process fun. He draws inspiration from the time, in early 2004, he underwent brain surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, a facility he calls "a model for how health care should be run in this country." The surgery came after he fell and smacked his head during a 50-mile marathon. Baucus got up and courageously ran the remaining 42 miles, "though my face looked like a Halloween mask by the end," he says.
The opposing view—voiced more loudly by critics—contends that Baucus' lead role seems less political destiny and more dumb luck, like a third-string quarterback thrown into the game at the most crucial moment. He's not very well known, somewhat inarticulate and a little awkward. The state he represents has fewer people than the number of Pennsylvanians lacking health care. He's working diligently—but fruitlessly, so far—to draft a bipartisan bill, even though Democrats in the Senate have a filibuster-proof majority. His negotiation table includes everyone but single-payer advocates, whom he rejected like a patient with a preexisting condition. And the very industry he's supposedly trying to reform has given him more money than its given almost any other member of Congress. Progressives wonder whether Baucus, beholden to big money, will blow the best opportunity to pass health care reform legislation in a generation.
These extreme views of Montana's senior senator appear irreconcilable. But Baucus' career—as Montanans well know—has come to be defined by how he eschews definition, hopscotching all over the political spectrum, including on issues of health care.
Few predicted that Baucus, 67, would become health care reform's point man. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, charged with hammering out how to pay for an overhaul of the system, Baucus figured to play a key role in the effort. But no one thought he'd become the legislation's most prominent figure—perhaps even more prominent than the president himself.
While Baucus drives the negotiations, the two assumed to lead the effort, Sen. Ted Kennedy and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, watch from the sidelines. Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, worked his entire career to provide health care to every American, but is currently battling brain cancer. He's missing what would have been the fight of his life to fight for his life. And Daschle, the former majority leader of the Senate, was appointed by Obama to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services, but withdrew in February because of controversy surrounding his failure to pay income taxes.
Enter Baucus, by default or design, as the de facto leader of health care reform. As Congress trudges through the minutiae of reshaping a system that makes up one-sixth of the U.S. economy, Americans hang on Baucus' every word. Asked in an e-mail interview with the Independent—the senator's first interview, e-mail or otherwise, with the paper in more than a decade—if he expected to be in this position, Baucus equivocates. He talks of the ground he laid more than a year ago, and his belief that, whoever became president, "health care reform could not wait."
"While I couldn't predict every detail," he says, "I knew that we needed to reform health care, and I knew that as chairman of the Finance Committee I would play a significant role in crafting the legislation. I wanted to be as ready and prepared
But, as he drafts a bill, critics don't question how hard Baucus works. They question who, exactly, he's working for.