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Breaux Aims to Cultivate Medicare Reform

Sen. John Breaux, AP Sen. John Breaux, D-La.
(AP File Photo)

Related Links
  • Medicare Reformers Battle (Washington Post, March 14)

  • Congressional Profile: Sen. John Breaux (D-La.)

  • By Helen Dewar and Amy Goldstein
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, March 14, 1999; Page A8

    He is one of President Clinton's closest allies, an old buddy of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a charter member of the "Kosher-Cajun" caucus and a committed centrist of the quaint old school that loves to cut deals.

    But even Sen. John Breaux, indefatigable legislative matchmaker, is now facing his most severe test. The Louisiana Democrat with a long, uneven career of deal-making finds himself presiding over the last days of a Medicare reform commission that was stacked from the start by both Clinton and Republican leaders and has shown little taste for compromise.

    The other day, the congenitally optimistic Breaux was giving the commission no better than a 50-50 chance of bridging its considerable ideological differences when it meets for the last time this week, to try to come up with a recommendation, as required, for Congress and the White House. Still, Breaux already is serving notice that, if the commission collapses in discord, he will pick up the pieces, bring them directly to Congress, and push for their enactment this year.

    That would be a more difficult path, he concedes, but not an impossible one. And Breaux does not shrink from the difficult. "I'll turn lemons into lemonade if I can," he said in a recent interview.

    "John likes nothing better than to bring consensus out of disarray," added Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), a longtime friend. "If there's a vacuum in the middle, he'll fill it."

    That style has led Breaux to a full range of success and failure. He played a key role in securing wetlands legislation, helped broker an energy tax compromise that was critical to passage of Clinton's first budget, and helped to rally Democratic support for welfare reform. But he failed in bipartisan efforts at grand compromise on the health care reform that Clinton longed for in 1994 and on regulating managed health care plans last year. He won Senate passage of some significant Medicare changes but they were dropped by the House. And though he calls Medicare a more imminent program than Social Security, he is working with Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and others on a plan to overhaul the retirement system.

    From his roots deep in Louisiana's Cajun culture, Breaux has exported a brashness, easygoing style and self-effacing wit to an institution that often seems puffed up with self-importance and stubbornly set in its ways.

    An example is the Kosher-Cajun caucus (Cajun-Kosher, he is quick to note, if you're discussing it in Louisiana). It refers to the partnership that Breaux and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) struck as they worked to get Clinton elected to the White House in 1992. It still has just the two members, but they have latched onto a cookbook that Breaux found one day in a New Orleans bookstore, created by two local chefs who feature such cross-ethnic items as Fried Katz Fish, Cantor's Courtbouillon and Scalloped Gefilte Fish.

    Fascinated by policy, Breaux has a zeal to make things happen and is not above exploiting his Cajun charm to bring others along. Above all, as he is fond of saying, he likes people and their company. "I'm the kind of guy that goes to the beach and reads a book in a group," he says.

    His style and political instincts have led him into alliances as complex and curious as perhaps any on Capitol Hill. He can serve as the Republicans' conduit to the White House or Lott's conduit to Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) or Clinton's conduit to Lott. But others say he simply has planted himself everywhere, ready to facilitate agreements or, if that fails, to enter into his own joint ventures with like-minded lawmakers of both parties to find a middle ground.

    Breaux goes back with Clinton to the early days of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and they have remained close despite frequent policy disagreements. Breaux was vice chairman of the DLC while Clinton was chairman and succeeded him in that post. Clinton is said by associates to enjoy his company, and Breaux says he has been talking with the president lately as often as several times a week. On impeachment, Breaux was one of Clinton's most loyal defenders.

    Breaux goes back even further with Lott. Both were aides to Democratic congressmen in the late 1960s and were elected to succeed their former bosses (in Breaux's case, the colorful Edwin W. Edwards, who went on to the governorship and a series of legal tangles). While Breaux and Lott served in the House, their families lived across the street from one another in Annandale. Lott's wife, Trish, was godmother to Breaux's youngest daughter, and their children were attendants in each other's weddings. Other Republicans say Breaux is Lott's favorite Democrat.

    Breaux and Daschle also served together in the House, came to the Senate when Democrats took control of the chamber in 1986 and are on good terms personally even if they don't always agree politically.

    At a time when politics seems dominated by practitioners of partisan advantage and ideological purity, the 55-year-old Breaux is proud to be an anachronism.

    When an impasse is reached on an issue he cares about, which often seems to include virtually everything, Breaux can usually be found probing for ways to bridge differences. "I really love when you have two different positions," he said, "because that necessarily creates a middle."

    His tendency often infuriates more liberal Democrats, who believe he settles on the cheap for compromises on basic Democratic goals on key social welfare issues. "People get nervous when Breaux sticks his nose into something," said an aide to a liberal lawmaker.

    While they usually bite their tongues, his relative conservatism has prevented him from rising further up the Senate's leadership ladder. He was chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 1988-90 election cycle and is now chief deputy whip, a relatively low-ranking position. Asked if he was too conservative to climb higher, he said, "Probably yeah. . . . I'm from Louisiana. I know when to hold and I know when to fold." But he said that he never has been tempted to become a Republican, that he'd rather "fight than switch."

    Even for a senator with a habit of hurling himself at large, unwieldy social problems, the politics and policy of Medicare reform were daunting. Breaux had made no secret of his eagerness to run the commission, created as part of a 1997 federal budget agreement, and Clinton seemed to want him. But his prospects for getting the job got tangled in late 1997 in a fractious dispute involving the White House, Lott and then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) over whether a Democrat or Republican would be in charge.

    In the end, they agreed to an unorthodox arrangement in which Breaux would become the chairman but Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), a smart, acerbic conservative who leads the House Ways and Means health subcommittee, would be the "administrative chairman."

    It was merely a indication of what was to come. Seated around Breaux on the panel are eight Democrats and eight Republicans, more than half of them members of Congress. As their chairman is fond of saying, they include a congressman who helped write the original Medicare law in 1965, a former Clinton official who used to run the program, academics and lobbyists who have made careers out of federal health policy, and politicians who have been feuding with one another over Medicare for years. "I mean I thought it was going to be a consensus if we could just get them to have dinner together and finish dessert," he said.

    As the months progressed, the ideological schisms showed no sign of narrowing. So one day in January, Breaux simply invited journalists to his office and tossed out his own scheme. He had not vetted it in advance. It called for Medicare to rely more heavily on private health plans, which would compete for the business of elderly patients. The government would start to give those patients subsidies, instead of setting the prices for their care and paying the bills.

    He knew his methods were unorthodox and his ideas would alienate his fellow Democrats. Still, he said, he set forth the plan on his own because he was "the only person who was sort of, like, independent, in the middle."

    But it placed centrist Breaux in an uncentered position, swiftly drawing the support of every Republican on the commission but only one Democrat. For the past two weeks, he has conducted a dizzying round of negotiations in pursuit of compromise, but as of Friday remained one shy of the 11 votes needed to report out a proposal.

    "To an extent, any ethos of the old-style Democrat is best embodied in John Breaux," said a senior Republican strategist. "If he can work out a deal, or work himself into working out a deal, that's what he's here for. It's not just self-gratification. It's the thrill of the chase, it's being in on what's happening."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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