Grassley, Key Republican Senator, Is on the Fence Over Health Reform

The Washington Post 's Shalaigh Murray discusses Sen. Grassley's (R- Iowa) pivotal role in the health-care reform debate and the pressure he faces from the left and right to take a position. Audio by Sarah Lovenheim/The Washington Post
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 19, 2009

As the senators filed out of the Oval Office after a meeting on health-care legislation last week, President Obama pulled aside Sen. Charles E. Grassley for a brief one-on-one.

He didn't mention the Twitter message the Iowa Republican had fired off the previous Sunday morning, railing against Obama's pre-recorded radio address that was delivered while the president enjoyed a night out overseas: "Pres Obama while u sightseeing in Paris u said 'time to delivr on healthcare,' " the senator wrote from the living room of his Iowa grain farm. ". . . When you are a 'hammer' u think evrything is NAIL I'm no NAIL."

You're proving to be one tough convert, Obama told Grassley. But the health-care reform legislation moving through Congress represents history in the making, he reminded the 75-year-old lawmaker. "And he wanted me to be a part of it," Grassley said.

Winning over the Senate Finance Committee's ranking Republican would represent a major coup for Democrats and a rare defection from the GOP party line for Grassley, a populist at heart but a loyal Republican according to his voting record.

The activist legislator in Grassley would like to affix his name to what he calls "the biggest bill of my career," and most voters in his increasingly Democratic state would presumably applaud him for it. For months, he has sought bipartisan consensus on health-care reform with his old friend and longtime collaborator, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). Grassley emerged yesterday as a charter member of the "coalition of the willing," a group of four Republicans and three Democrats seeking common ground in the Senate.

But his conservative side is struggling to abide core Obama goals, including a government-run coverage option that would compete with private insurance. "Finally aftr 6hrs got to a really intrestin discussion in our Rdtable; public option (backdoor to Canada health system) Scares me," Grassley reported via Twitter from a May 14 Finance Committee session.

A recent Des Moines Register poll found that 56 percent of Iowa adults support a government option, but Grassley's self-preservation instincts may be warning him to steer clear. He is intrigued by a proposal from Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), another coalition member, to create insurance pools modeled after rural cooperatives as an alternative to a government plan. But Grassley's Senate colleagues worry that he has become preoccupied by the distant but unfamiliar threat of a primary challenge in 2010, when he will seek a sixth term.

Not even Grassley can tell where he eventually will end up, but he is making the most of the attention he is getting from the White House. Over lunch with Obama last month, the senator complained that certain Environmental Protection Agency pollution policies were harming Iowa farmers. He has since met with several senior White House officials and is negotiating a visit to his state by EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

And he has thrown himself into the reform debate. Grassley's 2009 schedule shows 87 sessions with constituents, 58 Senate meetings, 10 speeches and nine committee hearings, all exploring ways to expand coverage and make health care more efficient.

Despite the series of caustic Twitter messages, Grassley said he likes Obama. During the 2008 campaign, Iowa's most durable politician marveled as the insurgent Democrat opened offices in every corner of the state and reached beyond traditional Democratic caucusgoers. When Obama won Iowa on Jan. 3, 2008, he did so by building a version of the broad political coalition that has lifted Grassley to five easy Senate victories.

Another lingering effect of the Iowa caucuses is the state's unusually strong support for health-care reform, the main point of contention in the long, bruising battle between Democratic candidates Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards.

"It's a weird problem for Grassley," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. Iowans "were exposed to the dialogue for a year and are really engaged in the debate."

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