Washington Sketch: On Health Care, Republicans Aren't Listening

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Senate Finance Committee was barely an hour into its consideration of health-care reform on Tuesday morning, but Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) already knew where he stood.

"I do not support a government takeover of the health-care system," he railed. The proposal "confiscates more money from the taxpayers," he went on. "It tramples on American freedom and liberties."

After this vigorous display of open-mindedness, Bunning was spent. About an hour later, spectators noticed that the senator, who had been resting his chin in his hand, had fallen fast asleep. As giggles rippled through the chamber, an aide shook Bunning, who woke with a start.

Bunning's nap was a fitting comment on how he and his Republican colleagues had received the efforts of the committee's chairman, Max Baucus (D-Mont.), to craft a bipartisan compromise on the mammoth legislation. Baucus made major concessions to Republicans: He dropped the "public option" for a government-run health plan; he tossed aside the mandate that employers provide health coverage; he cut the bill's cost and made sure it was all funded by revenue from within the health-care system; he stipulated that government funds would not go for abortion or to illegal immigrants; and he included efforts to curtail medical malpractice awards.

And what does Baucus have to show for his concessions? One by one Tuesday, Republicans delivered the same thanks-but-no-thanks message.

"I'm sorry to say that despite your good work, this bill would make many of our problems worse," said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), who has offered up 70 of the 564 proposed amendments to the bill.

"I appreciate the work the chairman has done," said Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), but "we have fundamental differences in philosophy."

"Let me begin this morning by first commending you and your staff for your sincere commitment to trying to find a bipartisan solution," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah). "I wish I could support it, but I can't."

In the chairman's seat, Baucus was a lonely figure. He opened his remarks with a quotation. "Harry S. Truman said," Baucus began, and then he paused. Uh-oh: Was it going to be that line, often attributed to Truman, that if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog?

Wisely, the chairman chose a different quotation. "Men make history, and not the other way around," he went on. "This is our opportunity to make history." Eventually, most committee Democrats and perhaps Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine are expected to join Baucus in this history-making. But as the committee's work began, not a single panel member had endorsed Baucus's proposal -- and the chairman showed the strain. "We're not Canada," he exhorted his colleagues, "we're not Britain, we're not America, we are the United States."

Baucus is suffering the consequences of being one of the last serious men in town. President Obama is on Letterman, Barney Frank is on Leno, and Tom DeLay is on "Dancing With the Stars." Even Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, shed his usual reputation for grown-up behavior Tuesday as he howled about the "utterly and completely appalling" actions of Senate Democratic leaders and the White House.

Grassley acknowledged that Baucus had built "an environment in this committee for bipartisanship and collegial work" -- a reference to daily bipartisan negotiations for three months in Baucus's office -- but he protested that "artificial deadlines" ended the talks.

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