In the Hart Building, Reform's Pulse Weakens

By Dana Milbank
Friday, July 24, 2009

Is this where health-care reform goes to die?

A thunderstorm rumbled over the Hart Senate Office Building on Thursday afternoon. Rain leaked in and dripped in the atrium to the ground floor. On a fifth-floor landing, 35 journalists and more than 50 lobbyists formed a gantlet as half a dozen senators filed into Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus's office to try to salvage health-care legislation.

Two hours earlier, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had delivered the bad news: The Senate would not be taking up health legislation before the August recess because Baucus (D-Mont.) and his fellow negotiators (three Democrats and three Republicans in all) needed more time. Moments before that, a meeting of Senate Democrats had dissolved in acrimony.

Things were no better on the House side of the Capitol, where a committee writing health-care legislation again suspended its meeting Thursday because of disagreements, and a gathering of the House Democratic caucus deteriorated into what the third-ranking Democrat called one of the "most contentious" he had ever seen.

The rancor comes in large part because of what's happening, or isn't happening, in Room 511 of the Hart Building. Some say Baucus and his negotiating group are moving too quickly, while others say they are moving too slowly, and still others say too secretly and too cozily with lobbyists; as the lawmakers negotiated in Baucus's office, the lobbyists who had gathered in the hall met with Senate staffers in another part of the chairman's suite.

But Baucus appeared untroubled when he arrived for negotiations. He gave a high-five to one of the TV soundmen who had been staking out his office for weeks. "Did you get lunch?" he asked a cameraman. Yielding to complaints about their secrecy -- President Obama, asked Wednesday about Baucus's closed-door negotiations, said he would "welcome" C-SPAN cameras in the chairman's office -- the senators agreed to allow reporters and cameras in the room for a couple of minutes.

"No questions," Baucus called out, but one was asked anyway: Did he agree with Obama that C-SPAN cameras should film their closed-door talks?

"Whatever he wants," the chairman said with a smile.

Actually, that may be the problem with health-care reform: Obama isn't saying what he wants. Heeding the lesson of Hillary Rodham Clinton's failed health reforms, he has decided to let lawmakers work out the details themselves. But this strategy has deteriorated into anarchy, as each of the 435 representatives pulls the proposal in a different direction. If health care is to be Obama's Waterloo, as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) wished for him, it will be because he hasn't been able to herd his fellow Democrats into a consensus.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), scheduled her weekly news conference for 10:45 a.m., pushed it back to 11, then arrived at 11:27, full of cheery optimism about health care. "The momentum is going forward," she said. "We are on schedule."

A reporter reminded her about the squabbles at that morning's Democratic leadership meeting, which she had attended.

"It was a very invigorating meeting," Pelosi answered.

Did she worry that postponing health-care legislation until after the August recess might doom it? "I am not afraid of August," she replied bravely. "It is a month."

As Pelosi was speaking, Senate Democrats were experiencing an "invigorating" meeting of their own. At a gathering of Finance Committee Democrats, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) complained bitterly that he had been excluded from negotiations. Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) protested in a phone call with reporters that "the Finance Committee keeps dragging their feet. . . . It's time for them to fish or cut bait."

But Baucus emerged in good spirits. "Nothing's changed: We're ready when we're ready," he said. He excused himself, saying: "I'm late to lunch with my son."

While Baucus lunched, Reid said he was scrapping plans to finish health-care legislation in the next couple of weeks. "The decision was made to give them more time," the majority leader said of Baucus's group. Reid, his path blocked by reporters, tried to leave the room through a side door but discovered that it led to a kitchen. He then climbed around some television camera stands to make his escape.

Reporters left for the Hart Building and Baucus's office, now looking like a semi-permanent encampment after weeks of media stakeouts. Network TV cameras on tripods lined the landing like so many beach umbrellas. Reporters and camera crews ate from coolers and takeout trays and sat on office chairs that had been moved into the hall for their comfort. They exchanged familiar greetings with the six senators in the negotiating group.

"Fancy meeting you here," Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) called out to them. After a few moments of banter, she left with a tease: "Stay tuned!"

As soon as the senators filed in, the group of about 50 "stakeholders" (read: health-care lobbyists) was invited into another room in Baucus's office suite. But after about 15 minutes, the lobbyists filed back out: No progress to report. "Painful," one said. "Let's get away from the cameras," another suggested to a colleague.

Probably a good idea. Making health-care policy is not pretty.

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