With Health-Care Bill, Baucus May Define His Career and His Party

The Washington Post's Ceci Connolly discusses Senator Max Baucus's (D-Mont.) role in pushing health care reform.
By Shailagh Murray and Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 24, 2009

Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, may be President Obama's most critical ally on health-care reform. But which version of the independent-minded Montanan will preside as the debate intensifies this summer?

Republicans hope it's the cautious loner with a history of betraying his party on politically sensitive bills. Democrats are rooting for the iconoclast who emerged this year as a newly reliable champion of the administration's ambitious agenda.

Now 67, Baucus remains a Senate original in a chamber that has become increasingly homogeneous. He once confessed to viewing politics as "dirty, corrupted and tainted," but he hasn't lost a race in his conservative state since 1972. By dint of his seniority, Baucus is responsible for delivering the biggest breakthrough in health policy since Medicare was enacted nearly 45 years ago.

The bill that sits atop Obama's priority list is legislation that could define the Democratic Party for years to come. With the first committee votes just weeks away, Baucus seems acutely aware that the legislative and political challenge before him is greater than any he has encountered. After the spectacular collapse of President Bill Clinton's health-care overhaul in 1994, Congress retreated to a piecemeal approach. It was tedious and unsatisfying.

"I'm sick and tired of being the maintenance senator, the extender senator," he said in his spacious corner office on Capitol Hill. "Here, we're doing something. It's holistic, it's our health-care apparatus. We don't even have a system in America, really, and the idea is to get some structure, some meaning. You add it all together, and it's strategic. It's fun. A lot of senators want to participate in it, and groups do. They know that the train is leaving the station. There's a sense of inevitability here."

Under his direction, the Finance Committee is attempting to draft legislation that expands coverage and lowers costs without adding to the deficit. Baucus is committed to delivering universal coverage and getting more and better care from health dollars, and he is seriously considering an individual mandate -- requiring adults to have health insurance -- and taxing employer-provided health insurance.

The resulting bill would probably raise taxes, squeeze Medicare and broaden the government's role in health care -- all electric issues certain to provoke Republicans and myriad interest groups.

The stakes are high for everyone, but especially for the quirky chairman, whose legislative record remains something of a muddle.

"In the end, Max Baucus's goal is to illustrate that on this issue he can deliver," said Democratic health strategist Chris Jennings. "This has become what he wants for a legacy achievement."

Liberal Democrats and constituencies such as organized labor have questioned Baucus's party allegiance since he broke ranks on President George W. Bush's 2001 tax cuts and defected two years later to support a GOP-crafted Medicare prescription drug benefit. But in 2005, Baucus helped to sabotage Bush's Social Security privatization bid, and he was willing to cross his good friend Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) on the children's health insurance bill this year in order to expand coverage to children of recent immigrants.

Baucus may appear an unlikely standard-bearer, but "once he's committed, he's tenacious," said Len Nichols, head of health policy at the New America Foundation.

For more than a year, Baucus has schooled himself -- and many on the committee -- on the daunting complexities of the U.S. health-care system, a sector that represents one-sixth of the economy. His approach has been to pull together stakeholders and hold them as long as possible; no idea is ruled out, no policy change dismissed. In recent weeks, he has convened eight-hour sessions with Democrats and Republicans on the panel as part of his determination to craft a bipartisan solution. His mantra is always the same: "Suspend judgment, if only for a nanosecond."

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