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Paging Grassley's Gumption

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The last, faint hope for truly bipartisan health reform rests with Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa -- and faint may be overstating the prognosis.

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The 75-year-old Republican has been browbeaten by his leadership for collaborating with Montana Democrat Max Baucus, the chairman of the Finance Committee on which Grassley is the ranking Republican.

Grassley has been besieged by nervous constituents during this most tumultuous of August recesses. He's up for reelection next year and is worried about a primary challenge. He's eager to become the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee when his tenure on Finance is up, and is said to fear that he'll be denied the post if he goes wobbly on Democrats.

"There is tremendous pressure on both Chuck Grassley and Max Baucus to walk away" from health-care negotiations, one Republican senator told me. "That accounts for why you see Grassley doggedly going to these meetings, working very hard, but then he'll get nervous about it and say, 'Well, even if I support it, unless a majority of the caucus supports it, I won't vote for it.' I think those kinds of mixed messages reflect the tremendous pressure that he's under."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona "are working this very hard," said one Democrat involved in the health-care talks. "They have berated [Grassley] directly about the degree of his participation so far, and they work hard to prevent other people from going along."

But as much as people focus on health reform as a legacy issue for the ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy, it is also -- or could be -- Grassley's legacy as well.

He's logged hundreds of hours on health-care overhaul, an issue he describes as "more sweeping than anything I've ever worked on" during his three-plus decades in Congress. Grassley has an impressively wide stubborn streak and a history of defying the GOP leadership -- on energy taxes, on children's health care, on economic stimulus.

He has a close relationship with Baucus; they are, as one person who's worked with both of them put it, two senators "from big square states in the middle of the country where there's a lot of moderate people."

I caught up with Grassley Tuesday by telephone, when he was at the Des Moines airport, and, without being prompted, he brought up -- and disputed -- the perception that he had shifted positions during the course of the recess and backed away from comprehensive reform. "I think in my town meetings I haven't been saying anything that I haven't been saying for three or four months before," Grassley said.

Perhaps, but he didn't sound terribly eager to lead the charge for a far-reaching overhaul. He described the prevailing sentiment at his town hall meetings -- he held four on Monday alone -- as "slow down, deliberate, do it right, maybe do it incrementally." Grassley acknowledged that the health system is so intertwined that it is difficult to tweeze out pieces to fix one by one, but said that his goal is "do it comprehensively and still do it in a way that expresses to the people that you aren't trying to upset the apple cart. That's the impression people have: that they're not going to know their health-care system as they now know it."

Even more, he said, "health care is kind of the straw that broke the camel's back" on broader public concern over the deficit and government intervention into the private sector. "There is real fear for the future of our country, so we have to assess our activities in light of all that fear," he said.

Indeed, health reform is an enormous and uncertain undertaking at a moment of economic peril. This is why responsible politicians such as Grassley should be trying to educate voters, not stoke their fears with warnings about pulling the plug on Grandma. And it is why Democrats should be nervous about losing the Grassleys of the congressional world. Shared risk in an enterprise this ambitious is a smart strategy.

As for why Grassley should lead instead of counting Republican noses, my argument is this: If health reform passes, he will be remembered more for his role in making that happen than whether he was elected to a sixth term or what committee he served on as ranking member. If it doesn't, well, what's the point of serving in a body so riven by partisan politics that it is unable to function?

marcusr@washpost.com


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