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."
Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, praised Baucus for being inclusive but warned that he is running out of time.
"There's a moment at which you have to make real choices. We're entering that stage," said Stern, whose union ran ads against Baucus after his support of the Bush tax cuts. "He's going to start taking some flak. His job now is to see the finish line and not get distracted by all the land mines."
The scion of a wealthy ranching family, Baucus runs 100-mile ultra-marathons and displays a photo of himself on a bucking bronco in his office reception area. As an undergraduate at Stanford University, he bummed around Europe and Africa for months. For his 50th birthday bash, he rolled into a hotel ballroom on his black-and-white Harley-Davidson as the band played "Leader of the Pack."
In 30 years in the Senate, Baucus has never sought party leadership positions or seized hold of a high-profile policy issue and made it his. His interests have remained mostly Montana-centric, including intricate trade and agricultural concerns.
He is best known as one of the few Western Democrats to hold on in hostile territory. Starting in 1972, when Baucus was elected to the state legislature, Montana has voted for GOP presidential candidates in every race except the 1992 one.
To hold on to his seat, Baucus has often frustrated his party in Washington. In the 1994 health-care debate, Baucus sided with the National Federation of Independent Business over Clinton's proposal on employer mandates and said proposed regional insurance cooperatives "smack of excess government and the smell of socialism."
After Bush won Montana decisively in 2000, Baucus became one of his closest allies on tax policy, and in his reelection campaign the following year, the senator ran ad footage of Bush praising his "fantastic work" on a trade bill.
Still, Baucus reveres the bipartisan tradition of the Finance Committee and has pledged to uphold it, despite the intense polarization that otherwise dominates Congress today. In the eight years that Baucus and Grassley have run the committee, just four bills have passed on party-line votes.
"That's a pretty good record of bipartisanship," Grassley said. But the exceptions were significant, including Bush's 2003 business tax package and the children's health bill that Baucus agreed to expand over Grassley's objections.
Already, Baucus is caught in the crossfire over whether to include a government-sponsored insurance program in the bill.
"I think his biggest hurdle is he's got a large share of his caucus who thinks government can run health care better than the private sector, and they want that intervention," Grassley said. Baucus "is not in favor of that extreme position." But Grassley added, "He's in favor of it to more of a degree than I am."
Baucus was more sanguine. "It's like a lot of things around here," he said. "When there's an impasse, you start asking questions about assumptions. . . . You start to realize there's more commonality than you originally thought."
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."