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Why Is Max Baucus Sticking by Chuck Grassley?

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"I walked away from Senator Grassley. I tend to work with Senator Grassley. But there comes a time when you just gotta say, 'Sorry.' These things get watered down too much, it's just not right, so I just broke with him on that and pushed through a Medicare bill that finally got 60 votes. We had to work hard to get those 60, because Grassley didn't agree, but that was the right thing to do. So when Ted Kennedy walked on the floor to cast the 60th vote, that's a moment I'll always treasure."

That was Max Baucus, last August. I spoke with him in a seedy Denver burger bar during the Democratic National Convention. He was the one who brought up his willingness to break with Grassley. He wanted to convince me that bipartisanship was not, for him, an end in itself. That "these things get watered down too much." The example he was using was a fix for doctor compensation in Medicare. A few months later, he broke with Grassley again, passing a more generous expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program than his frequent partner could stomach.

To put this another way, on the two major health-care votes of the last few years, Baucus couldn't partner with Grassley on either of them.

The recent example people bring up of a successful Baucus-Grassley partnership is the stimulus bill. There, Baucus conducted extensive negotiations with Grassley and managed to keep his friend committed to the package. The legislation passed the Finance Committee 14 to 9. Grassley voted with the majority. But Grassley did not vote for the final incarnation of the stimulus bill. To secure passage in the wider Senate, and then to find a compromise that the House and Senate could live with, the stimulus bill was amended in ways that Grassley couldn't support. He voted against the final piece of legislation.

There's no scenario in which I can imagine the Gang of Six negotiations producing a more secure product. The White House cannot credibly claim to preserve its compromise against the wishes of other Democrats in the Finance Committee, the HELP Committee, the Senate and the House. As such, there's no plausible endgame here. Chuck Grassley can't, and won't, support the final bill. He has said as much. Baucus saw him defect on stimulus, and Baucus, in recent years, has repeatedly had to abandon Grassley on much less controversial health-care reforms than this one.

Yet Baucus has put himself completely on the line to preserve Grassley's role in the process. He's taking an enormous amount of fire for prizing bipartisanship over speed. He's increasingly loathed by liberals and facing an enormous amount of anger from the other members of his committee. There's even talk of reforms meant to deprive him of his chairmanship. And Grassley, for his part, is raging against the bill in public and doing nothing to provide cover for his friend or inspire confidence in the process.

I want to offer a clean conclusion here. I want a neat theory of what the Gang of Six is attempting, or how they see this playing out. But I don't have one. It's the single part of the process I really and truly do not understand.

Photo credit: Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post

By Ezra Klein  |  August 18, 2009; 3:35 PM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Next: Was Hedging on the Public Option All Part of the Master Plan?

Comments

Baucus and Conrad are being played by the Republicans, whose sole goal is "break" Obama. Many Dems are more concerned with being "pals" with other Senators than the lives of the rest of us. And Reid is letting them.
EOS.

Posted by: AZProgressive | August 18, 2009 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Senator Baucus is trying to get Republican cover for this health care bill. Otherwise there are only about 43 votes in the Senate for it. Without Republican cover, Senators in swing districts don't want to sign this bill.

Posted by: DavidBerkian | August 18, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

I think Obama strongly prefers a bipartisan solution to an issue that involves 20% of the economy and is as intensely personal as health care.

Going it alone on this issue potentially impact the Dems' ability to execute the rest of his agenda.

Posted by: wisewon | August 18, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Hubris. Baucus wanted to be a hero, as you said a few days ago. But he overestimated his abilities and underestimated the degree to which GOPers want to hurt Obama. Grassley put him in an untenable corner with his recent comments, and Kyl put the nail on the coffin. Baucus has no way out. He has to either give it up or let Reid or the rest of his committee take it away from him. Grassley has really left him no graceful way out. He truly is a loser here, and risks looking loke a total fool.

Posted by: Mimikatz | August 18, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

And what Berkian said. The votes really may not be there for a partisan solution for the same reason.

Posted by: wisewon | August 18, 2009 3:50 PM | Report abuse

@wisewon: the Republicans are *making* it a partisan issue. I mean, on one hand, I can understand how you want, in principle, bipartisan agreement, but you're giving a veto point on a super-minority party who all stays in lockstep on a single issue because they themselves have a partisan agenda and no interest in reform.

Bipartisanship is nice in principle, but in practice if one side doesn't want to "play" or themselves want to wield a partisan cudgel over the issue, one needs to retaliate with equal force.

Posted by: constans | August 18, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Senators in swing districts? Swing states, maybe, but most states are more diverse than most congressional districts. OTOH, Senators are only up every 6 years. Baucus will probably retire in 2014. It woujld be great to see Grassley given a really serious fight, since he is the only one of the Baucus Six who is actually up for reelection.

Posted by: Mimikatz | August 18, 2009 3:58 PM | Report abuse

I want a neat theory of what the Gang of Six is attempting, or how they see this playing out. They are trying to kill reform and keep the blue cross money coming. It's that simple.

Posted by: obrier2 | August 18, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Grassley and Bi-Partisanship are just covers for Baucas, but in the inverse of the usual meaning. Baucas must serve the interests of his healthcare corp. contributors, but he can't be too obvious that he's a bought man. Hence, he must try to argue that he must be nice to the GOP No-Sayers or the bill won't pass (this applies to Conrad as well, but Conrad is just more naked in his contributor worship and less visible as a toady.)

If Baucas splits with the Goopers in his team of six, then he's exposed as just a water and ammo carrier for UHC/Aetna/BC-BS.

As to votes to pass without the GOP: getting to 50 seems assured (if the Dems make it clear that this the price of not be tarred and feathered during their next election). As Ezra has pointed out the key vote is in bringing cloture (ending the filibuster) on the Sen. bill - whatever it is - and also the final conference bill. If the Dem. moderates fail to vote for cloture in the Senate, they should expect nuclear detonations is their district/stagte and radioactive fallout for themselves (or maybe even armageddon). No on cloture is not acceptable for the Dem. caucus.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | August 18, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

I think the emphasis on Senator Baucus is overstated. If Senators/Congressman weren't worried about the popularity of this bill, it would already be law. So far even the House hasn't been able to get it to a vote without Republican cover.

Posted by: DavidBerkian | August 18, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

What exactly will it take to pry Reid's useless ass out of that chair and replace him with effective leadership? The kind of leadership that might, I dunno, smack some sense into Baucus and give him an ultimatum? I'd hate to have to support his Republican challenger next year, but some battles have to be lost in order to win a war.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | August 18, 2009 4:29 PM | Report abuse

It is easy:

BAUCUS IS USING GRASSELY AS COVER...

He doesn't want a public option, and is doing the bidding of the insurance giants. So, he uses Chuck as an excuse. He's not dumb, he knows he does not need him. Just like you and I know.

Posted by: rat-raceparent | August 18, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

***I want a neat theory of what the Gang of Six is attempting, or how they see this playing out. But I don't have one. It's the single part of the process I really and truly do not understand.***

Ezra: Maybe Baucus is bending over backwards in an attempt to foster bipartisanship for the simple reason that, the longer he practices forbearance and indulges Republicans, the more "reasonable" the ultimate Democratic exercise of power (they do have the majority, after all) will seem to the public, and the more "obstructionist" will appear the GOP. I think assiduously working for comity for as long as possible increases the odds that the public will be on the side of the nice, reasonable Democrats when it comes time for the Senate to vote on the Waxmanized bill that emerges from conference.

Posted by: Jasper99 | August 18, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

I don't think Grassie's behavior can be explained in strategic or policy terms. I think that some insurance executives have naked pictures of him fondling a mistress or a pomeranian or something else... He must be being blackmailed. His 180 on hc (since his original white paper) cannot be explained any other way.

Posted by: evangeline135 | August 18, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Oops, I meant baucus, not 'grassie'

Posted by: evangeline135 | August 18, 2009 4:48 PM | Report abuse

*****What exactly will it take to pry Reid's useless ass out of that chair and replace him with effective leadership?*****

Probably not possible before next year's election. The last thing the Democrats want is to increase the odds they'll lose Reid's seat -- which is exactly what firing him from his leadership post will do. Even a fairly partisan voter will think twice before pulling the lever to deprive his/her state of the clout that comes from being represented by the majority leader.

Posted by: Jasper99 | August 18, 2009 4:50 PM | Report abuse

This is mind-boggling to me as well. What does he gain from keeping Grassley at the heart of this process?

Until last week I thought it was just to keep the Blue Dogs on board. But I think that justification is shot in light of Grassley's multiple controversial comments last week. With Grassley flat-out rejecting the possibility of compromise, can the Blue Dogs still whine that the mean old liberals are short-circuiting a (supposedly) productive bipartisan process? This really should be his John-Kerry-still-would-have-voted-for-the-war moment -- the moment that deprives him of all credibility.

The Blue Dogs can only credibly hold up the process for "bipartisanship" when the other party looks like it wants to be constructive. I think we are in a place now when Obama could start to demand some lines being drawn.

Posted by: NS12345 | August 18, 2009 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Baucus has not gotten the message. The Republicans have become a Leninist Party. They know the truth and will take any steps needed to get power so that they can impose the truth on the rest of us.

http://wonksanonymous.com/2009/08/16/understanding-republicans.aspx

If we let them continue with this we can kiss our bourgeoisie democracy goodby!

Posted by: WonksAnonymous | August 18, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

I really am amazed at the level of vitriol and hate the right wingers have for Obama and healthcare. That Palin would pervert language and summon the spectre of "death panels" should be to the everlasting shame of Republicans.

If we adopted a national single payer system like all our peers, we could cover everybody at lower cost than what we have now. The math is simple.

Forcing hospitals to "eat it" for unibsured patients is crazy. I guess I'm naive, but I don't understand why people resist this hugely needed change.

BTW, if you don't like Grassley (and I don't like him at all), please email him. I did and told him he should be ashamed of himself. thanks...

Posted by: markdinboston | August 18, 2009 5:10 PM | Report abuse

I think this is about political cover for democrats with ties to the health industry. When/if this Gang of Six business falls through - Baucus and some others can tell the industry that they tried to get a deal with the Republicans but that ultimately the Republicans weren't willing to deal. It gives them political cover for not opposing some of the more substnative changes that come out of the conference committee.

That's one theory.

Posted by: phillycomment | August 18, 2009 5:24 PM | Report abuse

Good grief. I don't want to be a Social Studies nerd, but the answer was in on this one a long time ago.

1. Obama, that's the POTUS, personally called Baucus into his office and deputized him to make the non-CSPAN televised deals with Big PhRMA, the Republicans, et al. Jesus, this has only been reported in that obscure publication, The New York Times. Maybe there's a blind spot on this at WaPo? This is just Max doing what his Prez has asked him to do, a Prez who has consistently championed Max and the Gang of Six and hasn't deigned to give the time of day to the Senate HELP Committee, not to mention the House. There's a mystery here?

2. And complementing all of this "good soldier" logic is the psychological fact that Baucus has long since compromised himself on the really big health care issues, going back to 2003 when he broke ranks with most of the rest of the Democrats on the Medicare Modernization Act and served as the ranking member Quisling on the Senate Finance Committee to get through that atrocity which, among other things, deeply embedded subsidies to Medicare Advantage plans seeking to undercut traditional Medicare and also advanced the obscenity that the Federal Government, in the person of Medicare itself, could not have a Prescription Drug Program, but instead would be forced by legislation which Baucus cheerfully promoted to lend it name to the looting of the Treasury by PhRMA's members -- now led by Billy Tauzin, the genius who pushed this legislation on the House side. And you think Chuck Grassley doesn't constantly remind Max Baucus of this?

Ezra, Ezra, Ezra. How can you have such a short memory and so little psychological savvy?

Posted by: billyblog | August 18, 2009 5:41 PM | Report abuse

Grassley strikes me as an excuse.

Baucus may feels some obligation to his party for the chairmanship, but I think he's also looking out for his future hoping to pull a Billy Tauzin or Phil Gramm. If he plays his card right, even if he loses his job, he punches his meal ticket for a long time.

The short version: His tactics are intended to buy time in the hope that industry pressure can counter or reverse public pressure. On the one hand, he can't throw up his hands and say "the process is stalled"; on the other, that's precisely what he seems to want to do -- until such a time as the industry and his major donors are able to get the bill that it wants.

As the saying goes: "follow the money".

That's a cynical view -- but one I wouldn't wager against in this case.

Posted by: JPRS | August 18, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Let's apply Occam's Razor. If Baucus is slowing down health reform and increasing the chances it fails by continuing to include Grassley in the negotiations despite his clear intent to vote against the bill, then the reason he is doing so is because he wants to slow down health reform and increase the chances it fails. See? That wasn't so hard to explain after all.

Posted by: redwards95 | August 18, 2009 6:08 PM | Report abuse

Why Is Max Baucus Sticking by Chuck Grassley? I guess we'll know the answer at some point, when some brave journalist decide to dig for it.

Posted by: impikk | August 18, 2009 6:53 PM | Report abuse

Does Obama have any role here?

Hillary said, "You campaign with poetry but you govern with prose".

Anyone for Hillary Care in 2013?

Posted by: samco9 | August 18, 2009 8:21 PM | Report abuse

I live in Montana and I have watched Baucus for more than 10 years. Baucus, I have concluded, is just a timid politician. He will always go with the flow, i.e. the Iraq war, Bush's tax plan. I don't think he can figure out the safe course now on health care reform so he just plans to delay till the safe course appears.

Posted by: glewiss | August 18, 2009 8:59 PM | Report abuse

I believe the White House honestly thought that if there was a compromise to be had it would be among the Gang of Six. What do they have in common? They're industry tools. If they can't agree it means industry has decided to try to block any reform. It appears this is what has happened and the front line of the campaign now moves elsewhere.

Posted by: bmull | August 18, 2009 9:13 PM | Report abuse

Baucus isn't up until 2014. In November his health care plan had a public option. He is doing this because he thinks that both sides should work together. He must now see that the republicans won't support anything he offers in the end.He should follow his first instinct, a strong medicare like public option.

Posted by: ne_voice | August 19, 2009 8:58 AM | Report abuse

The people want the public option, and the Congress needs to give it to them. Baucus and his gang of 6 need to be bypassed by the Democratic caucus because they are systematically selling out to the insurance industry. And, the article brings up Grassley, who "helped" get the stimulus bill. He helped to water it down making it less effective. The Blue Dogs need to quit aligning themselves with the disgraced Republican Party. What do they want to do? Help bring down Obama's presidency. How dumb? Ditch bipartisanship, as the GOP never wanted it and have telegraphed that message.

Posted by: peter777 | August 19, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse

The party of no- the do-nothings!

What have they accomplished for our country from 1994-2006? 12 years!

Twelve years! How have they moved our country forward?

The Senate- a 100 Member debating club - all with the same goal- more contributions.

Step outside the Senate- Senators?

8 years of 'no child left behind' - the USA -does not even rank within the top 25 for education in the world.

Healthcare reform - A - Healthcare crisis that Obama, Clinton and McCain ran on- Healthcare reform-

FYI- Obama won.

Senator Durbin of Illinois stated the Banks own the Senate. I am sure he will probably be stating the same for the Energy bill and the Healthcare bill.

On C-Span- John McCain"s response to the healthcare problem was that there was not enough competition.

A C-Span viewer asked him regarding his solution to the healthcare problem that we have had 40 years of competition- why do we have this crisis?

He then threw back his body and said we have problems- no solution.

While on C-span, Mr. McCain could not thank his GOP Party enough for giving him the nomination of his party.

The press does not question the ability of the congress or leaders in government to understand domestic issues that are facing our country.

Progress?

Telecommunications/C-Street

The Do Nothings " Country First Congress

Just look at what the C- Street U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering (R-MS) did for the country and the telecommunication industry.

He was the man- the man - for our telecommunications.

In the House, Pickering specialized in telecommunications issues, including one dear to Cellular South: making sure Congress took into account the interests of cellular companies serving rural areas.

Governor Sanford of SC emailed his mistress stating internet connection is unreliable at his farm.

Industry Favorite Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.)
Mike Ross is a top recipient from the following industries for the 2009 - 2010 election cycle:
• Cable & satellite TV production & distribution (#2)

Wonder why we can’t compete globally?

Wonder why JAPAN offers the World’s fastest broadband at $20 Per Home?

Telecommunications Lobbying created their oligopolies, (monopolies are illegal in USA)

4-3-09-By Saul Hansell
The fastest consumer broadband in the world is the 160-megabit-per-second service offered by J: Com, the largest cable company in Japan.

The cable modem needed for that speed costs about $60, compared with about $30 for the current generation.

By contrast, Verizon is spending an average of $817 per home passed to wire neighborhoods for its FiOS fiber optic network and another $716 for equipment and labor in each home that subscribes, according to Sanford C. Bernstein & Company.

I guess this is acceptable for the Republicans. "

Just like Healthcare?

Healthcare Lobbying created their oligopolies, (monopolies are illegal in USA)

Posted by: sasha2008 | August 19, 2009 9:31 AM | Report abuse

There's a very simple explanation. "Moderate", small state senators, who rely heavily on contributions from out of state special interests, are willing to sell the President out. The claimed interest in bi-partisanship is just a cover so it's not obvious that they're stabbing their fellows in the back. If they were genuinely interested in making the laws better, they might sit down with a few Republicans that might actually vote for a compromise or even just negotiate in good faith, rather than conservative Republicans like Grassley.

Posted by: VictorGalis | August 19, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

This guy represents more cows than human beings from his state. So, why does anyone let him draft the bill in the first place?

Posted by: nri1998 | August 19, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Really a Washington Post Reporter forgets the most basic advice in his Newspapers industry. Follow the money.... Follow the money ... Follow the money . Grassley is cover for Baucus. Again follow the money

Posted by: rfee1 | August 19, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

I've spent the past few months infuriated by Baucus. But, as round 2 in health care reform looms, I see he has played a very useful role. No one can claim the moderate wing of the Democratic party has not sincerely tried to include Republicans. No one can claim we rushed into all this. No one can claim we didn't have a raucous political debate over this. People like Baucus and Obama have made the Republicans look very, very bad (how bad? worse than 2001-2009, that's how bad). Their own VP nominee has been sounding even loopier than usual over this issue. Their Ministry of Propaganda over at Fox and on the air waves makes Fr. Coughlin seem almost calm. The Republican congressional leadership has been exposed as an obstreperous, intellectually and morally exhausted political force. The Dems are in a very good place. Let round 2 begin!

Posted by: Ladyrantsalot | August 19, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

We know that old saying:
"Birds of a feather, flock together."
I think they both need to retire.
they seem to be too connected, too entwined, too egotistical.
and too willing to welcome Lobbyists.
knocking on their door.
with lots of bucks!

TERM LIMITS!

"Reconciliation" is a lovely word!

Posted by: jelizbooki | August 19, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

What I'm wondering is, don't the democrats have any faith in this legislation? Is it not reasonable to expect these reforms to be the spectacular political success that universal healthcare is in every other developed country? If the republicans really want to wash their hands of this (as they probably should, since their best hope is stopping it outright as democrats will get the credit even if they cooperate), at some point we have to let them. And then, after they criticize the bill for not being bipartisan, they will end up looking like jackasses once everybody realizes how much better healthcare has become. And wouldn't that boost to democrats in general help out democratic members of Congress as well?

Posted by: RobinMDB | August 20, 2009 3:27 AM | Report abuse

Billyblog has it right. Baucus' chief of staff, Messina, is now Obama's deputy chief of staff. When asked, Baucus will readily tell you "The president is not for single payer, so what could we do?" "Yes, taking single payer off the table was a mistake". But again, "the president wasn't for it". The New York Times Magazine did a huge story with pictures on all these players. My favorite that I had enlarged and carry around with me is the one where Rahm is whispering in Max's ear.

Unfortunately for us, they are playing an old tired back room horse trading game. This time, as opposed to Medicare Advantage, it's not working as planned because of that old "fool me once" idea. Too many folks keep pulling back the curtain and what we are seeing are like the aliens in "V"; we are seeing the lizards without their human disguises. It's not pretty.
Oh, and there is probably blackmail involved too. What do you think all that wiretapping was for?

The fix is in, Ezra. Insurance companies will give us some gruel and they get to make up their losses in volume i.e. 47 million uninsured.

Posted by: mtcowqueen | August 20, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

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