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Max Baucus's Unpleasant Position

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About a year ago, when Max Baucus was hosting his "Prepare to Launch" event and holding the first hearings on comprehensive health-care reform, it was pretty clear that he saw this as his moment of greatness. Passing health-care reform would make him a legislative giant. He would not only join the pantheon of great Finance Committee chairmen -- Russell Long, Bob Dole, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Lloyd Bentsen, Bob Packwood -- but exceed them, having achieved the one priority they could never pass. He would be a hero.

Fast forward a year and he's been dubbed Captain Ineffective, which wasn't the costume he was going for. He has let himself fall into an almost uniquely unpleasant position: If a bill fails, he will shoulder most of the blame. Four other committees have passed their health-care reform bills. Only his Finance Committee has lagged. But if he passes some sort of compromise bill, it is still likely to disappoint many Democrats, as his slow schedule and emphasis on retaining Grassley's and Enzi's support will probably be seen as the reason the final product was weak. At this point, the best Baucus can hope for is to avoid being seen as the villain. It is hard to imagine him being cast as the hero.

The blame for that goes entirely to the bizarre process that he has constructed. If he had sent a bill into the Finance Committee and its progress had slowed amid objections from Blanche Lincoln and Tom Carper, at least the impediments would have been obvious and the targets for reformist ire clear. Instead, Baucus created an ad hoc committee composed of Kent Conrad, Jeff Bingaman, Mike Enzi, Chuck Grassley, Olympia Snowe, and Orrin Hatch (who later dropped out). They have conducted their work behind closed doors, and done so slowly. There is little information flowing in or out of their negotiations, and there was never a clear explanation of why this group was chosen in the first place.

The end result is that health-care reform isn't struggling through the Finance Committee. It's struggling through the Max Baucus Committee. He built the process and selected the participants and made the decisions. And he did so without ever explaining why this process was necessary, why the larger committee had to be excluded, why Finance couldn't stick to the schedule of Energy and Commerce or Ways and Means or HELP. As such, Baucus bears uncommon responsibility for the product. If his process fails, then he will have failed. For a man whose career has been defined by an aversion to risk, Baucus is running the most dangerous and unexpected legislative play in recent memory. He has put himself at the center of health-care reform. At one point, that seemed likely to assure him the credit. Right now, it seems certain to leave him the blame.

Photo credit: Melina Mara -- The Washington Post

By Ezra Klein  |  August 17, 2009; 7:14 AM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Comments

Congratulations are in order to Mr. Baucus and Mr. Conrad.

Their secret deals with the lobbyists are solid.

No Public Option.

Posted by: cautious | August 17, 2009 7:28 AM | Report abuse

Maybe the only positive thing from that may come out is that Baucus loses his chairmanship for good. The Republicans reformed their system a few years ago. It is long overdue for the Senate Democrats.

An extremely young caucus plus three extremely angry and powerful chairmans (Rockefeller, Schumer, Leahy) is a recipe for chairmanship reform.

Posted by: JonWa | August 17, 2009 7:44 AM | Report abuse

I think Rachel Maddow had the quote of the day yesterday on Meet The Press when she pointed out that the American people voted Democrats into the Senate in an overwhelming majority which translates into having huge majorities on each committee. And Max Baucus inexplicably saw fit to take that majority away in his negotiations for this bill. It just defies all logic and no matter what happens he will end up with egg on his face and I bet you any amount of money he announces he won't run for reelection shortly after the bill is voted on.

Posted by: sgwhiteinfla | August 17, 2009 8:20 AM | Report abuse

But the Post has been one of Max's biggest boosters. Ceci Connolly and Shailagh Murray wrote a puff piece that sounded like it was written by his PR staff. They wrote,"His approach has been to pull together stakeholders and hold them as long as possible; no idea is ruled out, no policy change dismissed."

This is insane. Twice Baucus has bodily thrown out respected physicians, nurses and public health experts rather than let them get the undeniable facts out. He has run and hidden from them when he cannot have them manhandled.

Senator Baucus is a wholly owned subsidiary of the greedy, wasteful profit making health insurance industry, but the Post thinks he is the Second Coming.

Posted by: lensch | August 17, 2009 8:43 AM | Report abuse

Dubbed Captain Ineffective? That's rather mild compared to the comments I've read around the internet.

Posted by: par4 | August 17, 2009 8:52 AM | Report abuse

Is there an effort underway anywhere to kick Baucus out of his chairmanship post? It would be nice to be able to get him out of there, or at least let it sink in just how ineffective and counterproductive is truly is.

Are any of the big progressive and/or liberal organizations ever going to actually step in to expose him for the tool he really is?

I don't think there will ever be a way to view him as anything other than the "Democratic" Senator from Montana who singlehandedly obstructed health-care reform for no good reason other than his own incredibly huge ego.

I lived in CT and did the best I could to kick Joe Lieberman out. Didn't get it done, but he's been acting like a neutered dog ever since McCain lost. So at least that's worked out somewhat.

I wonder just how proud Montana Democrats are of their own ineffectual/tool of a Senator.

Posted by: JERiv | August 17, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

What a false strawman.

The failures lie completely with Barak Obama and his WH staff, Ezra.

Secret deals with lobbyists were made in secret meetings at the White House.
And the direction to make the legislation "bipartisan" came right from Obama.

Everyone knows that, Ezra.

You're massaging facts to protect Obama and blame someone else

Is this Axelrod's new approach?

Posted by: auntmo9990 | August 17, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Okay, Ezra, you are coming late to this conclusion. Not just the current predicament, it was obvious that Baucus has been failing for a while. Post supported him, you were easy on him too and what else, even our beloved President goes to his country and praises him profusely in the town hall meeting.

California has supported President Obama to the hilt. There are folks (including myself) who supported Obama when Hillary was still a rage. California is also tremendously vested in Obama's Health Care Reform. And yet politics of this country is such that President Obama can 'screw' Californians for their support, their demands and go to a tiny state like Montana to carry waters of an irresponsible, failed Senator.

Great, this is very representative, able and dynamic Democracy....

Ezra, you have some explanation to do here too. You also need to see why is that you land up on the receiving end whether it is early enthusiasm for Daschle or Baucus? What they say, 'some skepticism' is warranted in your coverage for all these actors deciding fates of Americans illegitimately and essentially ruining America for long term.

Posted by: umesh409 | August 17, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

i wonder if anyone's thought that when and if a public option does go through and it fails and actually does what those who are against it say it will do "force employees into it and have employers drop coverage for a small 8% cost" even after Obama et al have said "IF YOU LIKE YOUR COVERAGE YOU CAN KEEP IT". I wonder if the slow deliberate approach of Max Baucus would actually be saving the democratic party as opposed to those on here that think he's a shill for the evil insurance industry that's out to get us all. If they get healthcare wrong I think you'll see those fence sitting indepdents jump back to their conservative roots. You're already seeing that in early polling in the govenor's races in NJ and VA.

I've talked to several business owners that I know that are begging to dump their burdens of employees on a public option. 8% of a static number is a small price to pay compared to the ever growing premium cost.

Posted by: visionbrkr | August 17, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

I still hold out hope that Baucus will come back from the recess and say,

"You know what? I've done my best to draft a bi-partisan bill. I set up a system with both parties represented and put everything on the table with the one caveat that we needed serious reform. I've done my best, I really have, but it's become clear from the last several months that my process just isn't producing the results I'd hoped, so I'm going to turn the process back to my full committe and have a bill finalized and voted on in a few weeks."

I know, it's a vain hope...

Posted by: MosBen | August 17, 2009 10:00 AM | Report abuse

Stupidity is never the path to greatness.

Posted by: pj_camp | August 17, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

By the way, Grassley and Enzi will never vote for any bill.

That's their path to greatness.

Posted by: pj_camp | August 17, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

And the firing squad begins....

Posted by: tomtildrum | August 17, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

I'm going to keep my powder dry regarding Baucus until about mid-Sept. because until then we won't know what kind of kabuki theater has been plotted by the Sen. Dems and the White House. Its clear that the larger Senate won't stand still on the Finance Committee acting as they are any longer than that - although their pernicious influence will last thru the final House/Senate conference, if there is one.

I read yesterday fun twist on the process that the conspiracy theorists could chew on like pemmican (for the lasting flavor) through the final act of this sordid tale filled with sound and fury and signifying something that hasn't been revealed. This 'story' says that Baucas will strip out everything that the Repubs hate and then ask for a commitment to vote for the bill. When the Repubs say no, then Baucas will take off his Captain Ineffective cloak and teeshirt and help ram through the full Senate a solid progressive bill with mandates, full-bodied public option (Ethiopian Highlands hand-picked organic beans brewed french-press style) and taxes on those earning over $350K to pay for it.

A nice story. Most children's tales are nice or moral-lesson 'teaching moments'.

I have my own theory being polished for Fall publication. It's working title is Fail in the Fall.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | August 17, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Jim, isn't it more likely that the stripped down version of the bill would be voted down by the Dems on Finance? Wouldn't the Republicans then be free to vote for it, knowing that it would never get by the majority liberals?

Posted by: MosBen | August 17, 2009 11:22 AM | Report abuse

MosBen: isn't it more likely that the stripped down version of the bill would be voted down by the Dems on Finance?

That sounds logical, but the Sen. Dems (even most of the real liberals) will not vote no against anything that can be said to be reform. Some House lefties would vote no, but the Senate? No way. The progressives/liberals don't do hardball very well, if it all, and there are darn few real liberals in the Senate.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | August 17, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

The reason for the select sub-committee and the Cheney-like secrecy is clear: To neuter real reform to benefit the industry honchos who contribute millions to campaign coffer. Well, congrats boys it worked huh? Looks like 47 million American people will be without real health care but the Baucus "fish fry" for contributors will be well-stocked as usual! Thanks a lot!

Posted by: mybandy | August 17, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Jim: But then isn't the problem that if the Dems vote yes on the stripped down bill (which is supposedly the impetus for dropping the consessions and producing a liberal bill) and the Repubs vote no, doesn't the stripped down bill pass? How do they get the Republicans to vote no without actually passing the bill on Dem votes?

Posted by: MosBen | August 17, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

If Max Baucus is Captain Ineffective, the Harry Reid must be General Ineffective. Why is Senate leadership in the hands of Senators from small population states who apparently are more capable of managing their campaigns than managing the Senate?

Posted by: ad9inaz | August 17, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

what can be voted out of the finance committee?

the vote of the democratic majority on the committee cannot be assumed

MAX BAUCUS, MT
JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER IV, WV
KENT CONRAD, ND
JEFF BINGAMAN, NM
JOHN F. KERRY, MA
BLANCHE L. LINCOLN, AR
RON WYDEN, OR
CHARLES E. SCHUMER, NY
DEBBIE STABENOW, MI
MARIA CANTWELL, WA
BILL NELSON, FL
ROBERT MENENDEZ, NJ
THOMAS CARPER, DE

republicans

CHUCK GRASSLEY, IA
ORRIN G. HATCH, UT
OLYMPIA J. SNOWE, ME
JON KYL, AZ
JIM BUNNING, KY
MIKE CRAPO, ID
PAT ROBERTS, KS
JOHN ENSIGN, NV
MIKE ENZI, WY
JOHN CORNYN, TX

one democrat conrad is anti-public option - he is trying to hold onto his seat in a conservative state

another democrat baucus seems not to want to be identified as supporting anything that is obama--like health insurance reform

there are 7 democrats on the committe, rockefeller, kerry, shumer, cantwell, nelson, and menendez, who can probably be counted on as obama-like health insurance reformers

there are 4 democrats on the committee, wyden, bingaman, carper and lincoln, who
have gone to great lengths to avoid being
publically identifed as obama-like health insurance reformers

the 10 republicans are not obama-like health insurance reformers

is there even a chance that snowe would vote for an obama-like health insurance reform?

is there even a chance that a good mormon like hatch would vote for an obama-like health insurance reform?


Posted by: jamesoneill | August 17, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

I am a Montanan and I share the growing concern about Max Baucus's ability to put forward an acceptable health care reform proposal. We all know that Max is firmly in the pocket of the health insurance and pharmaceuticals industries and has been for years. He has received millions of dollars in contributions (read: bribes) from these avaricious sharks. He certainly has lost touch with ordinary people out here in Montana and we believe he does not care at all about the quality or cost of our health care. Sadly, Montana has a long history of political corruption. We did succeed in getting rid of our notoriously corrupt Republican Senator, Conrad Burns, a few years ago, but corruption remains deeply rooted here. Max had better watch it or he may find himself out of a job when reelection time rolls around again, particularly if his proposal does not include the public health care option that is the most important element of any serious reform effort.

Posted by: dsrobins | August 17, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

When about 20,000 people die each year because they can't afford health care, that's six times the number that died on 9/11, and the government stepped in then at great cost. It, also, finally stepped up to the plate after the Katrina hurricane catastrophe, and when there are fires, tornadoes and floods, people expect our government to protect us at any cost. The government gets involved even when a whale gets caught in a net. The job of government is to save lives.

If Senator Baucus abdicates his duty to his fellow Americans and doesn't include the public option for real health care reform, his callous disregard for 20,000 lives will be another 9/11 six times over and, hopefully, his Waterloo.

Posted by: BettyW1 | August 17, 2009 5:34 PM | Report abuse

I think there is greater reason than ever to fight for the public option plan. I saw pictures on TV today of people carrying guns to an Obama rally, one an AK-15. I never saw anyone do that with Bush. I think the presence of guns shows the extreme (and I think dangerous) radicalism of town hall disrupters and those like Glenn Beck who encourage them. I don't remember a single instance of open gun carrying at one of George W. Bush's events.

Reasonable people can't let gun-toting radicals run American policy. If we do, we will see weapons at every event the GOP wants to trash. Ignore the town hall radicals and the threats that are implied when people carry guns to public rallies. Don't let those who threaten intimidate you on health care reform. Pass the public option.

Posted by: tinyjab40 | August 17, 2009 7:31 PM | Report abuse

Baucus was a failure the moment he declared that single payer was "off the table" despite a majority of Americans including his own constituents wanting one. In other words, he's been a failure since the beginning.

Posted by: slantedview | August 18, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

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