Max Baucus's Legitimacy Problem
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
September 17, 2009; 2:14 PM ET
Categories: Health Reform
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