Iowans Closely Watching Sen. Grassley on Health-Care Reform

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 15, 2009

DES MOINES -- Sen. Charles E. Grassley is one of the most important figures in the national health-care debate, a Republican whose support is being ardently pursued by the Obama White House. But when the Iowa farmer flew home to hear from constituents at town halls this week, he offered little clarity on how he will vote and fielded criticism from both sides of the issue.

Conservative activists had mobilized early, sending "urgent" e-mail alerts asking Republicans to show up at the meetings. Some Iowans, explained Ralph Watts, a Republican state representative in central Iowa who strongly opposes the Democratic health-care reform effort, are wondering if Grassley is "wandering off the reservation."

At a standing-room-only town hall in a community center in Panora, a man bluntly told Grassley: "When it comes down to your integrity, when it comes time to vote on that bill, I don't want you to do it."

"All I can tell is you is, I will make a good judgment based on what I feel the people of Iowa have been telling me. And I've heard you," the senator calmly said.

President Obama mentioned Grassley this week at a New Hampshire town hall as one of the key Republicans the White House has been working with as it tries to forge bipartisan support for reform. But Grassley's role concerns Alice Ward, a Democrat who came to one of his Iowa events. She said she is wary of her party working too much with a man she thought was "in the pockets of the insurance companies" because Grassley opposed the government insurance option.

For his part, Grassley, 75, remained noncommittal on what he calls "the biggest bill of my career" as he traveled to four town halls around the state, all of which were moved to larger venues to accommodate overflow crowds. Known both in his state and at the Capitol as a savvy politician -- he plans to seek a sixth term next year -- Grassley is reassuring Republicans that he is one of them, even as he negotiates with Obama on an issue that has stirred deep fears among conservatives.

Grassley has landed in a pivotal role as one of the "Gang of Six" -- members of the Senate Finance Committee who may hold the key to forging a compromise health-care reform bill that at least some members of both parties can back. He is one of the three Republicans in the negotiations, along with Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.). Unlike Enzi, who marches head-down from the meetings, saying little, Grassley has openly discussed his role in interviews and on the social networking site Twitter.

At the same time, Grassley has brushed aside the attention, casting his participation in the talks as simply a responsible thing for a senator to do rather than "sitting in my office with my feet on my desk."

"If you're in the room, you know what's going on, " he said at one town hall in his Midwestern twang. "If you're outside of the room, you don't know what's going on."

Grassley is framing his participation in the talks as a heroic move designed to shift to the right a bill that Democrats, with a 60-vote majority, could pass on their own.

"There would have been a partisan bill and it would have been through the Senate now, if I had not been at the table the last four or five months," Grassley told one crowd, a questionable statement since a Democratic consensus on the bill is not yet clear.

He also plays down questions about how he will vote by insisting there is not yet a bill on which he can vote. In fact, the outlines of a Finance Committee bill have been known for weeks. They include some of the Democrats' goals, such as using subsidies and tax credits to expand dramatically the number of people with insurance, but the proposal would probably exclude some ideas Republicans strongly oppose, such as a public insurance plan similar to Medicare and tax increases.

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