The Republicans' Deaf Ear Is a Preexisting Condition

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.

"My door is always open," Baucus replied. "I hope we can find a way where you and others can be part of this moment in history."

But at the moment, only one committee Republican shows any sign of signing up -- and even she was making no commitments yesterday. "We are far from the finish line," Snowe said. "There are many miles in this journey."

"You have made some valid statements," the chairman said solicitously when Snowe was done. "We will continue to work with you, because you have put your finger on some key points."

The concessions Baucus made to win the likes of Snowe have caused heartburn among committee Democrats. Even as they praised the chairman, Democrats said his proposal came up "short" (Oregon's Ron Wyden), "must be improved" (New York's Chuck Schumer) and "needs to be massaged" (Florida's Bill Nelson).

For antagonizing committee Democrats, here's what Baucus got from the Republicans:

It's "impossible for me to support the Finance chairman's bill," announced Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), despite all of Baucus's "good-faith gestures."

"Chairman Baucus resisted the temptation to get into the demand for the partisan," said Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), but "unfortunately the efforts were unable to produce a bill."

Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, dispensed with the courtesies. "This bill is a stunning assault on liberty," he said.

"I'd like to acknowledge your leadership on your side of the aisle presenting a certain point of view," the chairman replied. "We look forward to the debate."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company