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

By Jason Horowitz
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.

"Scott Brown said to me, 'This is a states' rights approach,' " Wyden said. "Those were the first words out of his mouth."

The reaction in the Democratic caucus, according to some of Wyden's Senate colleagues, was grumbling. There is a feeling among some in the Senate that Wyden is the "King of Policy Wonks," taking up creative positions that please think tanks but rarely go anywhere. The White House, sounding less than enthusiastic, has said only that it will look at the bill.

Wyden depicted the bill as indicative of "principled bipartisanship." (He did not mention a red garbage can perched above the staff cubicles in the back warren of his office. It bears George W. Bush's visage under the title "White Trash.")

His brand of bipartisanship has been perilous for other Republican partners, however. His last co-sponsor on a health bill was three-term Republican senator Robert F. Bennett of Utah ("A Mormon Republican and a Jewish guy from Oregon!" Wyden joked). Tea party activists and other conservatives in Utah attacked Bennett over his work with Wyden, and in May, Bennett lost his bid for renomination at his party's state convention, making him the first incumbent of the cycle to become a tea party casualty.

By contrast, Brown apparently has decided that he needs to work with Wyden to preserve his incumbency. After his surprise capture of the seat long held by Edward M. Kennedy, Democrats back in Massachusetts virtually ran the table in the November elections, and potential Democratic candidates have begun lining up to challenge Brown in 2012. Wyden's legislation gives Brown an opportunity to position himself as a moderate.

And Brown's notoriety lends the low-wattage Wyden some media spotlight for his bill. The Oregon senator recalled one day when he and Brown took a stroll outside the Capitol.

"People were waving," he said, but not at him. "He's much more of a public figure than me," said Wyden, but he added, apparently in earnest, "I have a truck, too. A 1993 Ford Explorer. It's right downstairs."

Wyden has been somewhat deferential to his in-demand partner.

"We went to the floor together last Wednesday or Thursday," Wyden said, describing the announcement of their bill. And I said, 'Would you like to start, or should I start?' And he said, 'Well, I've got a hearing I've got to run to. Would it be okay if I start?' And I said, 'Absolutely!' And then he started, and I went afterwards, and he was kind enough to stick around and gave me the chance to say, 'Well, I want to pick up on Senator Brown's message.' "

A brief explanation

Brown's office declined to make him available to discuss his own bill. On a recent afternoon, after he had passionately declared to a near-empty Senate chamber that "I worked with the senator from Oregon and other senators to find common-sense solutions," Brown walked off the floor and to the elevator bank, where, in response to a reporter's question, he explained the legislation thusly.

"Well, you know I think the health-care bill is deeply flawed," Brown said, stone-faced, as aides quickly converged around him. "I would like to see it repealed, but for my state and other states like it, who want to participate and do things in their own states, like we've done in Massachusetts, it's a good, bipartisan, common-sense solution."

His aides ushered him toward an opening elevator. Brown stepped in and denied a reporter extra time to talk about his legislation. "I don't really have anything more to say about it," he said. As the doors slid shut, he shrugged off the odd-couple suggestion by saying, "I treat every senator equally."

After some prodding, Wyden said in his office that the discussions started months ago, when Brown's record of voting for similar health-care reform in Massachusetts gave Wyden the impression that "he wasn't against everything."

Wyden's staff members then e-mailed Brown's staff members at the end of September, according to the Oregon senator's office. (Brown's press secretary, Colin Reed, confirmed the opening gambit in a one-word e-mail: "Yes.")

On the campaign trail, Wyden, seeking to show that he could reach across the aisle, referred to an unnamed Republican senator who was keenly interested in his health-care legislation. After his reelection, the two senators' policy teams got together to work out the bill. On the Friday before Thanksgiving, the staffers celebrated its announcement with bottles of Sam Adams on the Russell Senate Office Building's Kennedy balcony.

"We watched the sunset," said Jennifer Hoelzer, Wyden's press secretary.

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