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Max Baucus's Legitimacy Problem

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If Max Baucus had brought out the exact same bill in late June, the reaction would have been very different. The subsidies would have been criticized, and so too would the co-op provisions. But it would basically have been the bill people expected from his office. The Democrats on his committee would have their disagreements, but they wouldn't be fuming after months of being locked out of the high-level negotiations. Baucus wouldn't be hated for letting this mess drag on through August, and his legislative skill and judgment wouldn't have been called into question for sacrificing so much in pursuit of bipartisan support and then failing to achieve it.

But Baucus now has a legitimacy problem. A dealmaker needs credibility and respect on both sides, and Baucus has lost it. The Democrats on his committee don't trust his instincts or his core commitments or his legislative skill. Nor do the Democrats outside his committee. They feel he gave away too much in return for not just too little, but nothing at all. That means the Republicans on his committee have further reason to distrust his ability to make a deal, because restive Democrats are going to want to change his bill. Meanwhile, House Democrats are enraged that he left them to suffer through August, and have little interest in passing a bipartisan compromise that doesn't come with any Republican votes.

Attacking Baucus, in fact, has become an applause line for liberals: Gerald McEntee, president of the powerful AFCSME union, responded to Baucus's proposal by leading delegates at the AFL-CIO's annual convention in a chant of "bulls**t." The blog response hasn't been much better.

Indeed, the only group that does seem happy with Baucus, or at least relatively forgiving of him, is the White House. They think he tried to get bipartisan support, and though failure was regrettable and delaying the August deadline was damaging, the effort had enough potential upside that it was worth trying. At the very least, it exposed Republicans as unwilling to cooperate, and demonstrated that Democrats had indeed been willing to reach out. They're also very happy he's given them a framework that CBO has scored as not only deficit-neutral, but deficit-improving.

But that leaves Baucus with little evident power at this juncture. Even within his committee, it's not obvious he can secure the votes of the liberals, and if he does, he almost certainly sacrifices Snowe. That means the White House and the Senate leadership are going to play the primary role in both offering concessions and guaranteeing their preservation in the process. The bill remains in Max Baucus's committee, but at this point, it's largely out of his hands.

Photo credit: By Haraz N. Ghanbari — Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  September 17, 2009; 2:14 PM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Next: What Does the Congressional Budget Office Do? An Interview With Doug Elmendorf.

Comments

Along the lines how Megan McArdlee puts – fiscal responsibility means putting ‘fiscal balance’ ahead of everything else; are we going to see the compromise of ‘deficit reduction’ component of Baucus bill in all the negotiations which are going to come? Regardless of scorn and discredit of Sen. Baucus, in the end the fundamental value of this bill is the CBO certificate of ‘deficit reduction’ in the second decade. Compromise on that and there is nothing left. In other words, this ‘fiscally balanced and deficit reduction’ characteristic of the Baucus bill is the ‘heart and soul’ of that bill, of fundamental value to Americans. Everything else is irrelevant in that end. So the real question is – through the remaining sausage making will this ‘heart and soul’ remain intact or not?

Signs are not encouraging – Ben Nelson of Nebraska is in arms for the Medicare reduction in the Advantage plan which is the key fund raiser in Baucus bill. And the exposure of lower middle class for higher premiums (essentially a tax on middle class) is another problem. May be fiscally responsible crowd in the end can compromise for raising funds by actually increasing taxes on rich instead of ‘taxes lower middle class’ if everything else is remains same as far as funding goes.

Posted by: umesh409 | September 17, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Snowe didn't sign on at the Gang of Six stage, so she's certainly is not going to do so after Rockefeller et al have their say.

Here's hoping they can't pass a bill out of committee. It would be a rebuke to the White House, but a deserved one, and it moves us a bit closer to reviving the PO.

Posted by: bmull | September 17, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Here's hoping his blunder will discourage this kind of ridiculous tactic in the future. The metaphors from a month or so ago portraying Baucus as the girl who doesn't know she's about to be dumped turned out to be completely spot on.

Posted by: HerooftheBeach | September 17, 2009 3:21 PM | Report abuse

How does it feel to be basically writing a policy gossip column, Ezra?

Posted by: Klug | September 17, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

I sure hope the White House has a plan to achieve a legislative victory at some point beyond the "at the very least" category. Surely there were cheaper ways -- in both time and political costs -- to prove the Republicans were not interested in constructive engagement.

Posted by: NS12345 | September 17, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

"Even within his committee, it's not obvious he can secure the votes of the liberals, and if he does, he almost certainly sacrifices Snowe."

If the White House thought it needed the liberals, it would have strongly endorsed the "public" or "single-payer" options, which it did not. And as you correctly mention, the "chant of 'bulls**t.'" is coming most loudly from the little left, rather than from the big middle or the righteous right.

This is traditional with health care reform efforts: the left NEVER will accept ANYTHING, because doing so puts to rest a chief campaign issue (or a profit-generating issue in the case of AFL-CIO).

Posted by: rmgregory | September 17, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

This is traditional with health care reform efforts: the left NEVER will accept ANYTHING. this is the stupidest post ever writen on this board. The dems bent over backwards for you clowns and got nothing in return.

Posted by: obrier2 | September 17, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Baucus will be there in a final conference between the House and Senate, working his Republican (old style) magic. He can't be excluded.

There's a bigger picture here.

The old sourthern Dems were a drag on the Dem party for generations. They are now gone, replaced by Republicans of a fairly recent variety - those who have no need in primaries to sound like Dems but do have to sound like the old southern Dems. Or they lose.

The Republicans lost a good part of the non-southern part of their base, replaced by Dem. 'moderates' - who are really the old moderate Republicans.

Baucus is a old-style moderate Republican. He's one of the Bishops of Moderation in the non-Democratic wing of the Dem. party. Think of him as a Strom Thurman without the racism (or the father of an illegimate mixed race daughter). Or maybe an Ev Dirksen but far more beholden to the corporate bandits that pay his way.

Bottom line: the Democratic wing of the Democratic party has to compromise with hits minority from the Republican wing of the Democratic party. It stings. It hurts.

Meanwhile the POTUS wants to mix his support from the Crazy/Racist wing of the Republican party with the Republican Wing of the Democratic party. The Democratic wing sees itself being told to go back to its whining corner and suck its thumb.

See how clear things can be? (heheh).

Think chastened Bill Clinton having to get legislation from new-style Republican majorities in the House and Senate and it all makes sense. All that is missing is Speaker Gingrich and Majority Leader Dole.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | September 17, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

This is an awfully good point, Jim. The fact is that any bill that can get the votes of all 60 Democrats itself a bill that has wide support from across the ideological spectrum. There's no reason to assume that a hypothetical bill will such broad based support needs Republican votes.

The compromise should be between liberal Democrats and conservative and moderate Democrats. That ensures that a lot of voices get heard.

Posted by: constans | September 17, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

rmgregory writes on September 17, 2009 3:35 PM
-------- start----------
This is traditional with health care reform efforts: the left NEVER will accept ANYTHING, because doing so puts to rest a chief campaign issue (or a profit-generating issue in the case of AFL-CIO).
---------end ------------

Believing and saying what's above damages the American political system because it denies that those who disagree with you might actually be acting in what they think is in the best interests of the country whether or not it is to their partisan political benefit.

It turns them from being people who you can disagree with but have a drink with to the enemy who must be crushed by any means.

That's what's happened to an unprecedented degree this summer. And look what's it done, its given power to the crazies on the right within the Republican party. And sooner or later, it may give power to the crazies on the left within the Democratic Party.

Posted by: shelgreen | September 17, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

The Baucus mark is going to be held up by GOP Senators such as Grassley as "the basis for a bill they could have voted for", even if that's clearly BS. That kind of rhetoric is likely to be endorsed by the Village elders. As such, it's poisoned the legislative well.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | September 17, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Robert Reich is placing a lot of importance on Baucus' plan, and in particular, Snowe's decision to either support it or not.

http://robertreich.blogspot.com/2009/09/why-olympia-snowe-should-vote-against.html

Posted by: slantedview | September 17, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

You spelled it wrong. I think you mean "idiocy problem."

While I'm correcting spelling errors, "this juncture" is actually spelled "this moment."

Posted by: pj_camp | September 17, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, is this something you are hearing from White House officials yourself? Or it just some sort of gossip among reporters?

Posted by: Hopeful9 | September 17, 2009 8:38 PM | Report abuse

I suspect that Baucus was never going to get a truly bipartisan bill.

Once the health care ball started rolling in the Spring, reform opponents targeted the August recess as a time when they hoped to shift public opinion. Clearly a few months of planning went into organizing in advance of the August recess. An earlier reform measure might have circumvented the PR battle.

The GOP and its allies made a calculation that their best hope in terms of political advantage was to reverse momentum for reform in August.

Their strategy has been one of delay and stall -- hoping to kick the can further down the road and hoping to reverse public opinion as has happened in the past.

Opponents were able to peel off some popular support for the measure on the margins; in the process they've also helped to harden popular support for real reform measures.

I don't think this was Baucus's plan, but effectively it's been an unintended by-product of his management of this issue. His management appears to be grossly inept.

Posted by: JPRS | September 17, 2009 11:30 PM | Report abuse

Ezra is right on. It is one thing to be a conservative democrat. It is quite another to be a conservative democrat and be incompetent. I've never seen anyone so isolated and exposed as Senator Baucus is right now. He has proven that he can't convince Republicans or Democrats to see health care reform the way he envisions it. As chair of the committee, it is problematic because he won't be able to get anything done.

Senator Baucus tried. The Republicans said no. They don't care what he proposes because they have no intention of passing anything that President Obama can sign. This is their strategy. It is about time he realizes it. He should move ove to the Democratic framework and get it done. The American people elected Democrats to the White House and huge majorities in both housed in order to get this done.

If Senator Baucus can't figure out how to do it, or is not inclined to, he should step out of the way.

Posted by: edster1 | September 18, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

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