By Lori Montgomery and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, a key Republican negotiator in the quest for bipartisan health-care reform, said Wednesday that the outpouring of anger at town hall meetings this month has fundamentally altered the nature of the debate and convinced him that lawmakers should consider drastically scaling back the scope of the effort.
After being besieged by protesters at meetings across his home state of Iowa, Grassley said he has concluded that the public has rejected the far-reaching proposals Democrats have put on the table, viewing them as overly expensive precursors to "a government takeover of health care."
Grassley said he remains hopeful that he and five other members of the Senate Finance Committee can draft a better, less costly plan capable of winning broad support from Democrats and Republicans. But as the group, known as the Gang of Six, prepared to continue talking via teleconference late Thursday, Grassley said the members may be forced to reassess the breadth of their efforts in light of public concerns.
"Not just on health care, but on a lot of other things Congress has done this year, people are signaling that we ought to slow up and find out where we are and don't spend so much money and don't get us so far into debt," he said in a telephone interview between stops in Iowa Falls and Ames, where he has been leading foreign diplomats on a week-long tour of the state. The Finance Committee group is still discussing a "comprehensive" plan for extending coverage to millions of uninsured families, he said, but revisiting that approach would be "a natural outcome of what people may be getting from the town hall meetings."
As the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, Grassley has the potential to attract GOP votes by giving his blessing to a bill, and congressional Democrats and the White House consider him the key to winning bipartisan support for President Obama's top domestic priority. In recent days, however, some Democrats have accused Grassley of trying to undermine the reform effort, for example by refusing to debunk rumors that the Democratic health bills would create "death panels" empowered to decide whether the infirm live or die.
On Wednesday, he denied those claims and fired back at Obama, saying the president should publicly state his willingness to sign a bill without a controversial government-run insurance plan. Such a statement, he said, is "pretty important . . . if you're really interested in a bipartisan bill."
"It's not about getting a lot of Republicans. It's about getting a lot of Democrats and Republicans," Grassley said. "We ought to be focusing on getting 80 votes."
On Wednesday, Grassley made clear that he remains committed to pursuing a health-care bill, provided it does not "make things worse" for people who are happy with their insurance or add to swollen budget deficits. His remarks echoed those of other key Republicans -- including Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.), the other GOP negotiators on the finance panel -- as well as some Democrats, who are quietly urging Obama and congressional leaders to lower their expectations for what can be accomplished this year in the interest of building momentum for future reform.
Enzi, who said he could support a larger measure, said in an e-mail message that it would be more "effective" to break the bill into parts. Snowe, who is being courted by administration officials, said she told Obama in a White House meeting this month that he should take a more "practical approach" toward reform legislation that "doesn't so transform the system that it undercuts what is best about our existing health-care system."
"If there's anything we've learned during the course of this August recess," Snowe said in a telephone interview Wednesday, "it's that there are many people who are satisfied with their health insurance. And that's important. And we want to make sure it stays that way."
Meanwhile, Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking Democrat in the House, said he has been reminding his party colleagues that Congress passed multiple, piecemeal civil rights bills in the 1960s and that activists had to put off demands for voting rights until 1965 to win a landmark ban on employment discrimination in 1964.
"LBJ made it very clear a half a loaf is better than no loaf at all," Clyburn said Wednesday. "We should do what can be done immediately and use the time between now and 2013 to figure out how to do the rest."
Like many Democrats, however, Clyburn said that he does not believe Grassley and other Republicans are negotiating in good faith and that the White House should pull the plug on efforts to draft a bipartisan bill when lawmakers return to Washington after Labor Day. With hefty margins in the House and the Senate, Clyburn said, Democrats will be better off when "the White House decides it's time for us to put together our own bill."
Leading Republicans have stoked that notion in recent days. Even as administration officials have suggested that they would drop one of the most controversial provisions -- a government-run insurance plan -- some Republicans have heightened their criticisms of health-care reform.
On Wednesday, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) blamed the White House for the increasingly strident tone of the debate, saying: "They rejected our efforts to work together." And Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a prominent GOP figure who is considering a 2012 presidential run, said bluntly: "The Republicans should kill the bill. It's a bad idea."
Top Democrats are growing impatient in light of such comments and say they are increasingly convinced that there is little chance that any health-care bill will win broad Republican support. They have not, however, stepped up preparations to draft a Democratic bill or to use a procedural maneuver known as reconciliation that would permit them to push a measure through the Senate with 51 votes rather than the usual 60.
"The White House and the Senate Democratic leadership still prefer a bipartisan bill," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.). "However, patience is not unlimited, and we are determined to get something done this year by any legislative means necessary."
Administration officials on Wednesday sought to tamp down the partisan fires, with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs assuring reporters that the "president believes strongly in working with Republicans and Democrats."
Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the Democrats' chief negotiator in the talks, issued a statement saying his group "is on track to reach a bipartisan agreement on comprehensive health-care reform that can pass the Senate." A senior Democratic aide involved in the talks and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said they remain convinced that Grassley is bargaining in good faith.
The six senators plan to talk by telephone on Thursday night, and Grassley and Snowe said they expect the outcry at town hall meetings to be a major topic of conversation.
"Not everyone is coming to the town hall meetings because of health care. It's kind of the straw that broke the camel's back," Grassley said. "They're seeing the stimulus not working. They're seeing the Federal Reserve shoving money out of the airplane not working. They're seeing big increases in the deficit coming. Then they see a trillion-dollar health-care bill, and they think it's not good for the country."
While Snowe said she is hearing a passionate cry for action on health care from her constituents, Grassley, who is up for reelection next year, said Iowans are more interested in making sure that Congress does not mess up what they already have.
Calls for reform are "not quite as loud as people that say we ought to slow down or don't do anything," he said. "And I've got to listen to my people."