Dead center 

Sen. Max Baucus, health care reform and the future of compromise

Page 4 of 4

"You can see how things are all coming together to increase the access for our community," Mansch says.

"It's huge."

Partisan paralysis

It seems a wonder that the law passed at all.

At the truck stop, Baucus talks about the political dynamics that shaped the debate while he and fellow lawmakers drafted it.

Baucus's centrism and cross-aisle relationships made him well suited to drum up support. That was central to the Obama administration's strategy: use moderate ideas that they hoped would appeal to conservatives, such as the health insurance mandate, which goes into effect in 2014. It was an idea that many Republicans and conservatives championed during Congress's last fight over health care reform, in 1993. A mandate with a tax penalty, akin to the Affordable Care Act, was central to the health care reform passed in Massachusetts when Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president, was governor there. In pursuit of middle ground, centrist Democrats jettisoned proposals coming from more progressive members of their party, most notably a public health insurance option, but Baucus and fellow Democrats couldn't wrangle a single Republican vote.

I ask Baucus if it seems to him as though Democrats took a step to the middle and Republicans took two steps to the right.

"That's accurate," he says.

Does he feel betrayed?

"Not so much. Because many of those who supported the individual mandate are no longer there. Richard Nixon even proposed it, as did [former Republican senator from Rhode Island] John Chaffee, and he's gone. Bob Dole—he's gone. There are a lot of members of Congress on the Republican side who proposed mandates who are no longer there."

Was he surprised?

"The other side—and they'd say the same about us, I suppose—is so political; it's not surprising in that sense. They'll find some things to drive a wedge between Democrats and the public. They used this bill to do it."

Such partisanship has only worsened since ACA's passage, which leaves Baucus as one of Congress's few moderate lawmakers. Others are opting out or getting pushed out.

click to enlarge During the Senate’s August recess, Max Baucus lends a hand at a low-income housing project at Missoula’s Running W Ranch. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • During the Senate’s August recess, Max Baucus lends a hand at a low-income housing project at Missoula’s Running W Ranch.

Sen. Dick Lugar, a Republican from Indiana who's served since 1977, voted for the bank bailout, the auto industry bailout, an arms-control treaty with Russia and for the confirmations of Obama-picked Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Tea Party Republican Richard Mourdock used those votes to frame Lugar as out of step with his party—and beat him by 20 percentage points in Indiana's Republican primary in May.

After Lugar's loss, he wrote a letter addressing the widening political fault lines. Mourdock's "embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance," Lugar wrote. "In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party. His answer to the inevitable roadblocks he will encounter in Congress is merely to campaign for more Republicans who embrace the same partisan outlook... This is not conducive to problem solving and governance. And he will find that unless he modifies his approach, he will achieve little as a legislator. Worse, he will help delay solutions that are totally beyond the capacity of partisan majorities to achieve."

The Senate's centrist exodus at the end of the year will also include Republicans Olympia Snowe of Maine and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman and Democrats Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Virgina's Jim Webb.

In Snowe's announcement in late February that she wouldn't seek another term, she wrote that the Senate "serially legislates by political brinkmanship... Only by finding that common ground can we achieve results for the common good... That is not happening today and, frankly, I do not see it happening in the near future."

Baucus, who's up for reelection in 2014, sees the trend. Yet he has a more positive outlook.

"Fundamentally, I believe you've just got to keep working to try to build bridges," he says. "Congress is more polarized. It's true... But what's the alternative? Bail out? Whine and complain?

"The alternative is to keep looking for people you can work with to get responsible, principled legislation passed."

Then he offers another proverb.

"This too shall pass. I'm not exactly sure when, but it's going to pass."

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