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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 his own concession, Baucus is no Edward M. Kennedy, the widely acknowledged Senate expert on health policy. Nor is Baucus an intellectual force on a par with the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who chaired the panel in 1994. Moynihan wanted Clinton to address Social Security and welfare before tackling health care.

"Pat Moynihan was a wonderful, wonderful guy, but he didn't believe in this," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "The Senate Finance Committee under Max Baucus has never gotten out of the gate faster and more aggressively on health reform. That's about leadership."

Last May, around the time Kennedy received a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, Baucus began studying health care in private tutoring sessions and through a series of public hearings. In June, he convened a day-long health summit at the Library of Congress and invited his friend Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke to deliver the keynote address. It was Bernanke who helped Baucus see health care through the prism of the overall economy. At the same time, candidate Obama was taking a similar approach on the campaign trail.

On Nov. 12, days after Obama was elected, Baucus issued his health policy white paper, "Call to Action."

Baucus likes to tell how Princeton economist Uwe E. Reinhardt used the paper in class. "It made me feel maybe there's something to this; maybe I'm on the right track. I'm very proud of it," Baucus said. Over a recent congressional break, he asked 10 senators to read the paper -- and "some of them did," he marveled.

As the process unfolded, even old friends weren't sure they recognized him.

"He's a guy who loves challenges," said his longtime top aide Jim Messina, now deputy White House chief of staff. "But I've never seen him this focused and obsessed."

Baucus speaks with Messina almost daily and has conferred at length with Obama. Baucus and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) recently accompanied Obama to Latin America and spent an hour in the president's Air Force One cabin briefing him on their progress. Baucus and Grassley recently had a private lunch with Obama and Vice President Biden. The senator consults frequently with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, White House health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle and budget chief Peter Orszag. And he has instituted a weekly session with chief economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers.

And yet Baucus remains nervous that Democratic leaders and the White House will jump out ahead of him. His worries are not unwarranted. The administration pressed Congress last month to adopt a special budget rule that would allow the Senate to pass a health bill with a simple 51-vote majority, effectively cutting out Republicans and even moderate Democrats. "We don't want to get blindsided," he has said.

Baucus knows that some Democrats are leery about his loyalties, but he insists that passing a bill supersedes his desire for bipartisanship. "They may get to the point where they're not there," he said of Republicans. "The president wants a bipartisan bill; I want a bipartisan bill, because it's more sustainable. I hope that happens; I think there's a good chance that that might happen. But I don't know. Crunch time is coming up here pretty soon."

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