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Back in Iowa, Grassley Is the Talk of the Town Halls

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.

Grassley drew strong rebukes from Democrats after he seemed to suggest at one town hall that conservatives were justified in worrying that a provision in the House version of the legislation that pays for end-of-life consultations would lead to the federal government playing a role in deciding when to "pull the plug on Grandma." Grassley says he opposes that counseling as written in the House version of the bill, but a spokesman said the senator does not think the House provision would in fact give the government such authority in deciding when and how people die. The House bill allows patients to decide for themselves if they would like such counseling.

Yet even as Grassley hints he may not agree to a compromise with Democrats, he also makes nods in the other direction. Grassley aides noted he had already spoken twice in the recess with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Finance Committee, who is working closely with him. In front of crowds, Grassley referred to the work of "our committee" and even listed provisions he backed: efforts to increase pay of rural doctors under Medicare and banning insurance companies from using preexisting medical conditions to deny people coverage.

As he travels the state, Grassley constantly notes his opposition to any funding of abortions in the bill, another major Republican fear. He lists his conservative stances on a number of issues this year: He has been a reliable party-line vote in opposing some of Obama's major legislative efforts, such as the economic stimulus bill and the successful nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

"I believe in the Republican Party, I am a Republican, I will always be a Republican; Republican principles are very important to me," Grassley said during one stop.

Even as he confers with Obama, Grassley also aggressively tries to distance himself from the president, who is increasingly unpopular among GOP activists. Grassley suggested Obama and Democratic leaders might leave him "pushed from the table" in the negotiations by pushing a partisan bill, although the president and his team have urged the Gang of Six to keep meeting.

And outside of his town halls, the senator is trying to make peace with his strongest conservative opponents. Grassley met this week with activists from the "tea party" movement in the state, assuring them he would not back a health reform bill that funds abortions or includes a government insurance program. The activists said they had already selected a conservative to run against him in a primary next year if he votes for a health-care bill they don't like.

"He's a very nice man. I really hope he listened," said Ryan Rhodes, the state leader of the Iowa Tea Party, who declined to name the person who would challenge Grassley. "But we will be making sure that we hold him accountable."

A Des Moines Register in April poll showed about two-thirds of Iowans approved of the job Grassley is doing. But that came before his heightened role in the health-care debate.

In an increasingly Democratic state, many Iowans would likely approve of Grassley reaching a compromise with Democrats. But as his base largely opposes reform, Grassley seems content not to declare his final position on health care.

"I've got 16 more town meetings" this month," he said, when asked by reporters what he had learned that he would tell colleagues in Washington after a series of meetings featured Republicans repeatedly making the same critiques of the health-care effort. "So I don't want to draw a conclusion from four."

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