Left turns up heat on Baucus

Liberal lawmakers and labor groups are turning up the heat on Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), fearing he will not embrace a robust government-run insurance option in his healthcare reform bill.

Some union officials have already approached Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to voice their concerns about Baucus and would like to see him put some pressure on the powerful Finance Committee chairman.

In the red state of Montana, a coalition of unions and liberal groups called Montanans for Healthcare has urged constituents to contact Baucus and urge his support for a widely available public insurance plan.

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Molly Moody, a Montana-based organizer affiliated with Healthcare for America Now, said pressure on Baucus has intensified in the last month.

The AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are also involved, as are chapters of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers.

Baucus has also felt heat from liberal colleagues in the Senate and House.

“I would prefer that we had a strong public option,” said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who is running the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on a day-to-day basis in the absence of ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

The HELP Committee has released a draft healthcare reform bill that lacks some key details, but liberals are not worried about the measure that will come out of that committee.

Dodd told reporters at a Wednesday press conference that health costs for average Americans are soaring and a public plan is the remedy.

“The value of having an option out there, and you can call it a public option … is to have an alternative idea that would give a sense of competition out there. That, the strong feeling is, will help drive those costs or keep those costs down.”

Dodd was joined on Wednesday by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a senior member of the HELP panel.

“It’s got to be some kind of public plan, some kind of plan that is national in scope, so it’s not given to one area or the other, and totally portable,” Harkin said about the need to pass a package with a public option.

“It will have to be something where the government is involved in one way or another,” he said. Harkin said he would not insist on the government running the public insurance option but added that government should set parameters and regulate it.

Finance Committee communication director Scott Mulhauser said, “The health reform debate will continue to include input from all sides as Sen. Baucus remains focused on writing a strong, bipartisan bill that can pass the Senate and remain sustainable in years to come.”

Baucus has said that healthcare reform must have broad support among Democrats and Republicans.

“If [Republicans] are on board, then it’s sustainable; otherwise, it’s partisan and it’s less sustainable,” he told reporters earlier this year.

Liberals fear that Baucus will advocate for a limited public option — one, for example, that would be limited to areas of the country where only a small number of private insurance plans are available for purchase.

Moody, the Montana-based organizer, said Baucus has been urged not to set a trigger or threshold that would make a public option available only where few private plans compete for customers.

“We want to make sure there is no trigger. It’s very dangerous,” said Moody.

House Democrats have also called for a full public option.

Rep. John Larson (Conn.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said he would like Baucus to show support for giving all Americans access to a public insurance plan.

“I’m in favor of a public option. The president favors a public option,” said Larson, after meeting with fellow members of the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over healthcare.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Ways and Means panel, said he could not imagine Congress passing a reform package that failed to include a widely available government-run insurance option.

“I haven’t heard anyone say they could support a plan without it,” he said. “That’s a part of the president’s plan, and that’s what I’m supporting.

“To take that away from the equation, you’re saying you’re not supporting the president.”

Meanwhile, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean appeared on C-SPAN on Wednesday, extolling a public plan option and rejecting Republican arguments against a large government role in healthcare.

Liberal Democrats and lobbyists anticipate that Baucus will water down the public option in order to forge a deal with his longtime legislative partner, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

“It’s disappointing to hear Sen. Grassley talk about the private plan the way he is because the chairman of that committee, Sen. Max Baucus, has been depending on him for a bipartisan solution to this exciting opportunity that we have,” Rangel said during an MSNBC interview on Tuesday.

Because he would like to attract Republicans to his healthcare plan, Baucus has steadfastly refused to embrace a widely available public option. Grassley, the senior Republican on Finance, told The Hill in an interview earlier this year that he is adamantly opposed to a public plan, which he said would drive private insurance plans out of business.

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Some left-leaning Democrats don’t trust Baucus, noting that he worked with President Bush to pass the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill by the slimmest of margins.

Baucus, Grassley, Dodd and HELP Committee ranking Republican Mike Enzi (Wyo.) met with President Obama on Wednesday to discuss healthcare reform.

Dodd later told reporters that while the president supports a full public insurance option, he only asked lawmakers to avoid delay.

“He expressed his concern that if we delayed this we could lose the moment,” said Dodd.

Liberal lobbyists say that in addition to Baucus, they are concerned about two other Democratic members of the Finance Committee, Sens. Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and Tom Carper (Del.). One lobbyist said both have resisted a government-run insurance option.

Ciaran Clayton, Cantwell’s spokeswoman, said: “Sen. Cantwell is evaluating a range of proposals for healthcare reform. She firmly believes that every American deserves access to quality affordable healthcare and believes the health insurance industry needs reform.

“She is still considering how to develop an effective public option that would expand choice and improve quality.”

A spokeswoman for Carper did not respond to a request for comment.

Other Senate Democrats who have raised concerns over a public plan include Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Mary Landrieu (La.).

Sam Youngman contributed to this article.