Power Broker 

Is Sen. Max Baucus the sellout the left portrays, or the savvy centrist poised to finally reform American health care?

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Baucus' big table

John Flink, vice president of the Association of Montana Health Care Providers, a group supporting an array of reforms, including health insurance coverage for all Americans, has been traveling between Helena and Washington, D.C., since May. He expects to continue the trips well into the fall as he works with Baucus' staff on health care reform.

"He keeps saying to people, 'When you hear a new idea don't make a judgment immediately. Wait 15 minutes and think about it and then let's talk about it,'" Flink says. "He has said everything is on the table. I think he's done a masterful job of keeping the process moving forward. We're at a very tough part of the process right now."

Count Flink among the people who believe the senator's bipartisan approach to health care reform is a necessity, not a luxury. He points to the fact that of the three similar bills that have, as of press time, passed out of House and Senate committees, none had the support of a single Republican. A handful of moderate Democrats didn't support them, either. Meanwhile, Baucus works to lasso moderate Democrats and Republicans within his Senate Finance Committee, creating a bill that might ensure a filibuster-breaking 60 votes if and when it goes to the Senate floor. Observers say the current bipartisan negotiations also serve to allay opposition from sectors of the health care industry, potentially diffusing a multi-million-dollar public perception campaign that could occur during Congress' August recess.

The Obama administration recognized Baucus' influence over its top domestic priority early on. Instead of foisting a health care reform bill on Congress as the Clinton administration did, it charged Congress with crafting its own. That meant the man who leads the committee with the broadest jurisdiction on Capitol Hill would be crucial to seeing a bill through to the president's desk. In fact, The New York Times speculates that Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel hired Baucus' long-time chief of staff and protégé (and University of Montana graduate) Jim Messina as Obama's deputy chief of staff in part to give Baucus "a close ally in the White House and the president an influential advocate" on health care.

With or without Messina, Baucus seems a perfect middleman for the Obama administration. As the president likes to say (and Voltaire before him), "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Or, as Emanuel tells his staff: "The only nonnegotiable principle here is success. Everything else is negotiable."

"The interesting thing about Max as I have watched him over the years," Flink says, "is he has always been about doing what's possible to do in the legislative process."

What's possible today, Baucus has concluded, can only be realized by working closely with the special interests that have the influence—and have proved it—to make reform impossible. It's a lesson, he says, learned from the Clinton administration's reform attempt that ran aground in 1994.

click to enlarge The Sunlight Foundation recently revealed that five of Baucus’ former staffers currently represent 27 different organizations within the health care industry, including top lobbying organizations. The industry spends more than $1.4 million per day lobbying Congress. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • The Sunlight Foundation recently revealed that five of Baucus’ former staffers currently represent 27 different organizations within the health care industry, including top lobbying organizations. The industry spends more than $1.4 million per day lobbying Congress.

"During previous attempts to pass comprehensive health care legislation," Baucus says, "many organizations and industries that were invested in the future of the health care system were left out of the negotiating room. They had no chance to offer solutions or be part of the discussion, so they spent all their energy and money sinking the plan—and it worked.

"This time around, we've brought everyone to the table. And by keeping everyone at the table, we can work through issues constructively, instead of destructively," he continues. "Plus, I think everyone knows that our health care system must be fixed, and everyone wants to find a way to bring about comprehensive reform."

The groups sitting around Baucus' table, even the more progressive ones, say the senator stands out—at least so far—as health care reform's unsung hero, not its Achilles heel.

"This is the range that Baucus has at the table," says Bob Struckman, the Montana communications director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). "On one end there's the groups like us, the Service Employees International Union, which is fairly liberal. On the other end, he's got the pharmaceutical and the insurance industries, who have a lot vested in things the way they are... We're literally at the same table, talking with Baucus, trying to hammer out what we all want. There are other groups, too. The fact that all these people are giving input means that none of them are feeling disempowered or scared of the process and trying to stop it and end it."

In 1993, David Kendall of Missoula served on the President's Task Force on National Health Care Reform, and he's worked on Capitol Hill ever since that infamous crash-and-burn to "try to get it right." Now a senior fellow with the Third Way, a progressive think tank, Kendall believes Baucus holds more power on the health care issue than the president. He says if Baucus doesn't lead the finance committee forward—with the health insurance industry in tow—there's zero chance of reform passing.

"I think it's very hard for people in Montana to see how central Sen. Baucus is to the health care debate," he says.

More than that, though, Kendall says that Baucus has approached the issue with unequaled zeal, which, he observes, started with CHIP and continued into the current debate.

"About a year ago," Kendall says, "he started walking the Senate Finance Committee through the issue and all the problems they were facing.

He did that in a way that was utterly engaging. These were meetings that members of Congress usually don't ever participate in, and he had pretty much the whole finance committee sitting around for days at a time discussing this issue. That's unheard of.

click to enlarge Single-payer advocates rally in front of Baucus’ Missoula office in June. Baucus excluded single-payer health insurance from negotiations early on, calling it politically impossible. Critics say that decision proves he’s kowtowing to the companies that fill his campaign coffers. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Single-payer advocates rally in front of Baucus’ Missoula office in June. Baucus excluded single-payer health insurance from negotiations early on, calling it politically impossible. Critics say that decision proves he’s kowtowing to the companies that fill his campaign coffers.

"From the very start," Kendall continues, "he's taken an unprecedented approach to leading the senators through this issue, and that's paid off now that we're actually in the weeds here trying to sort this out. It's an ugly process making legislation, no different from making sausage. But without that background, without the trust that developed in terms of being able to have a civil discussion about the reform, if they hadn't had that, I can't imagine how much harder this would be. What we're dealing with today would be so much harder if Sen. Baucus hadn't laid the foundation for this over the last year."

Furthermore, Kendall says that not only has Baucus filled the leadership void left by Sen. Ted Kennedy, but that Baucus can also bring people into the debate Kennedy couldn't have.

"Sen. Baucus can talk more directly to those Western Democrats, the moderate Republicans, because of his relationship over the years," he says.

The question, then, is what Baucus will have to sacrifice to bring moderates into the fray.

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