With health-care overhaul plan, Wyden and Brown become Senate's odd couple

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden keeps his staff and himself relaxed in tense times with casual basketball passes in his office. Wyden has always loved basketball, and has brought it with him wherever he goes.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 10:11 PM

When Ron Wyden returns to the Senate next week, it will be as half of one of the most unusual duos in the Senate. The brainy Oregon Democrat and Scott Brown, the brawny Massachusetts Republican, are joining forces to tweak the Obama administration's federal health-care overhaul.

"Stylistically," said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report, "they are very much an odd couple."

Wyden, who underwent prostate cancer surgery this month and will be back in the Senate full time next week, is lanky and almost aggressively geeky. He has a reputation for serious thinking on health-care and tax issues, if not for racking up results. His wife, Nancy Bass, is the owner of the Strand, the landmark bookstore in Lower Manhattan, where the couple and their twin toddlers keep an apartment.

Brown is the strong-jawed senator who campaigned in a red pickup truck, once posed as a nude centerfold and wore pink leather shorts, married a former bikini-clad music video model turned local news anchor, and described his daughters - one of whom was an "American Idol" finalist - as "available" during his acceptance speech. After his election, he turned some senators off by exhibiting a swagger unbecoming a freshman and flipping closed the briefing books that colleagues read from in the chamber.

Wyden's staff said they expect to expand their alliance with more bipartisan co-sponsors in the new year, but neither he nor Brown is saying who made the first pass in their immaculate connection.

"I don't remember who talked to who first, or when," said Wyden, who instead described a spontaneous and unprompted "recognition that Oregon and Massachusetts were two of the states with the longest history of being innovative and trying new approaches."

Wyden said Brown was "very easy to talk to."

Brown was just as coy. "We're always talking," he said, as he retreated into a "Senators Only" elevator in the Capitol. "We have connections between staff, and we've always tried to reach out and do things in a bipartisan way."

Left unsaid is that Wyden needed an issue to bolster his bipartisan credentials and stave off conservative challengers in this brutal campaign season. And that Brown is facing a daunting election for a conservative in his traditionally Democratic state come 2012.

In Wyden's Senate office, decorated with policy tomes and a large-screen Macintosh computer, a book written by his father about the Bay of Pigs sits on the coffee table. Wyden likes to show visitors the back-cover blurb from a key player in the ordeal (" 'He knows more about it than we do' - Fidel Castro") and muse about his family's literary background. He and his wife had their first date in Portland at Powell's City of Books, which besides the Strand is arguably the other great independent bookstore in the country.

'States' rights approach'

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, in an almost empty Capitol, Wyden folded into a corner of a maroon sofa in his office in the Dirksen building, put his feet up and for more than an hour said things such as "I won't wonk you out with this" and "sometimes I call myself D-Waiver" as he discussed the nuances of the bill.

In short, the legislation would allow states to opt out of the federal health law in 2014 instead of 2017, provided they meet minimum coverage benchmarks. The argument, Wyden said, is that the bill would give both conservatives and liberals a chance to prove their theories on how best to run health care. Conservative-leaning states antagonistic to the bill's individual mandate provisions can try more market-based models. And the more liberal states that considered the overhaul insufficiently bold can give the public option a shot.

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