Grassley boycott possible for Medicaid commission

With the nation’s governors and congressional Democrats already saying they will not participate in an ostensibly bipartisan commission considering Medicaid reforms, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also may decide to steer clear, according to an aide. Under the fiscal year 2006 budget resolution provisions that created the commission, Grassley and other congressional leaders are entitled to appoint members of Congress to act as nonvoting advisers to the commission being assembled to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Mike Leavitt.

With the nation’s governors and congressional Democrats already saying they will not participate in an ostensibly bipartisan commission considering Medicaid reforms, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also may decide to steer clear, according to an aide.

Under the fiscal year 2006 budget resolution provisions that created the commission, Grassley and other congressional leaders are entitled to appoint members of Congress to act as nonvoting advisers to the commission being assembled to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Mike Leavitt. “We haven’t submitted [a name] and it is still not absolutely clear (to me) that we will,” a GOP Finance Committee aide wrote in an e-mail Friday.

Patrick G. Ryan
Sen. Chuck Grassley may not submit names for the commission, according to an aide.


Grassley openly opposed the amendment to the Senate budget resolution that led to the creation of the panel, but his refusal to select a member of the panel would further undermine the commission’s credibility, which has been damaged before the commission has even been formed.

Nominations for voting members of the panels were due to Leavitt on Friday, but the members of Congress empowered to name nonvoting advisers were not held to that deadline.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has asked a senator to sit on the panel but had not received an answer by Friday, an aide said. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) also are entitled to pick members of Congress to serve as advisers to the commission.

A bipartisan task force of 11 governors, led by Virginia’s Mark Warner (D) and Arkansas’s Mike Huckabee (R), announced Wednesday that they would not  participate as commission members. Instead, the National Governors Association(NGA) “will provide its recommendations to Congress and the commission,” according to the association’s statement.  The NGA will present its recommendations at a Finance Committee hearing June 15.

The decision by the governors also exacerbates Leavitt’s challenge to assemble a commission immune to accusations that it merely will serve to rubber-stamp the administration’s established Medicaid strategy.

On May 25, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Senate Finance Committee ranking member Max Baucus (D-Mont.) relinquished their rights to select members of Congress to serve as nonvoting advisers.

Reid and Pelosi issued a joint statement saying, “An invitation to Democrats to select four members of the Senate and House to advisory roles without a vote is wholly inadequate to lend any commission even the air of bipartisanship.”

One Republican lawmaker who sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Heather Wilson (N.M.), has taken the Democrats’ side on one facet of their complaint. In a May 27 letter to Leavitt, Wilson urges that the members of Congress named to the panel be empowered to vote on its recommendations.

Democrats outside Congress will be chastened against accepting an invitation to the commission. Although Democratic leaders are not engaged in a campaign to discourage former members of Congress from participating in the panel, “the press release speaks for itself,” said Jim Manley, Reid’s staff director. A Pelosi aide remarked, “They’ve seen our statement.”

One Senate Democratic aide suggested that the Bush administration easily could identify former Democratic members — who already share its views on Medicaid — to sit on the commission but that “it’s hard to imagine why current members would.”

Leavitt will seek the participation of current or former Democratic members of Congress despite the rejection of the panel by Democratic leaders, his spokesman said.

“The bipartisan issue is not necessarily gone,” the spokesman said. Leavitt is “committed to reaching out to Democrats on his own,” even if no Democrats are represented on the commission, he added.

Any Democrat who was to accept an invitation for Leavitt to serve on the commission would do so in contravention to the explicit position of the party’s leadership in Congress.

In addition to competing with the Medicaid initiatives emerging from the governors, the Finance Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee, Leavitt’s commission also will be considering reforms at the same time the secretary himself likely will be called on by Congress to weigh in on Medicaid.

If he decides to sit on the panel himself, Leavitt would find himself in the potentially awkward position of serving on a commissioned charged with shaping administration policy on Medicaid while simultaneously representing the administration in talks with Congress.

Although the Medicaid commission does not have to complete its recommendations for reducing Medicaid spending by $10 billion until Sept. 1, the administration will be called on by Congress in the meantime to address the issue and likely to testify in committee.

If Leavitt is serving both as a member of a bipartisan advisory commission and advocating for administration policy in Congress at the same time, “it seems like they’re not being straight with the American people,” the Democratic aide said.

Part of this possible conflict is related to timing. The commission will have less than three months to organize, consider evidence and discuss recommendations to meet a Sept. 1 cutoff date for providing advice to the administration.

The HHS spokesman emphasized that Sept. 1 is a deadline, not a goal. Leavitt would like to complete the panel’s work “as fast as possible,” he said. A timeline for when and how many meetings will be held has not been set.