Baucus-Dodd friendship may be key to healthcare

Few senators know that Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) have had a quiet friendship over the years, but that relationship may prove pivotal for Democrats’ hopes of passing a health reform package.

Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee charged with figuring out how to pay for the healthcare overhaul, once backed Dodd for leadership at his own peril.

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Dodd, who is filling in at the top of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee for the ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), to this day can fondly recall a wing-back chair the Montana senator gave him as a gift.

The two worked closely together on the $700 billion bailout last fall — a fact that even one of Dodd’s closest friends in the Senate and a colleague on Baucus’s Senate Finance panel did not know.

“We’ve been good friends even though we’ve never been on the same committees,” Dodd said in a recent interview.

An aide to Baucus said the two men work well together.

“Sen. Baucus has been a colleague — and friend — of Sen. Dodd’s for decades and is again working closely with him as they reform the nation’s healthcare system,” said Scott Mulhauser, a spokesman for Baucus.

But the friendship doesn’t erase the perception that Dodd will move the legislation to the left, as liberals demand, while Baucus will push it to the right, hoping to appease Republicans and the business community.

Liberals are demanding a broad public insurance option to compete with the private sector.

But the creation of such an option would alienate pharmaceutical manufacturers, doctors and hospitals, groups negotiating with Baucus to come up with ways to pay for the massive overhaul.

Baucus struck a deal over the weekend with the pharmaceutical industry to require companies to pay $80 billion over the next decade to improve senior benefits. A healthcare lobbyist, however, said a robust public health insurance option such as liberals want would kill the deal.

The differences don’t end there.

Liberals, including Kennedy, still remember how Baucus teamed up with Republicans in 2001 and 2003 to pass landmark tax-relief and prescription-drug legislation.

Dodd, meanwhile, was asked by Kennedy to steer the healthcare legislation in his absence.

The two men represent strikingly different regions of the country: Montana, a state that Democratic presidential candidates have carried only twice since 1948, and Connecticut, which last supported a Republican presidential candidate in 1988.

Their friendship has stood up to pressure in the past.

In 1994, Baucus broke from his fellow Western Democrats to vote for Dodd in his race against former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) for Democratic leader.

That vote hastened the deterioration of Baucus’s relationship with Daschle and contributed to the perception among some Democrats that he could not be trusted, said two former Democratic aides who worked closely with Baucus and Dodd.

A former aide to Dodd said his old boss has not forgotten the favor.

“My friends who worked with Baucus said he paid a price on that vote for years,” said the former aide. “Chris Dodd is not one to forget his friends.”

Dodd repaid Baucus in 1996 while serving as chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). He traveled to Montana for a three-day trip to campaign and raise money for Baucus, who was in the midst of a tough reelection race.

The two senators also shared campaign offices in the 1996 cycle, and last fall worked together on the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

Dodd, who is chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and Baucus resisted a push by House negotiators to give the White House a “blank check” to bail out troubled banks, a former Dodd aide said.

“It was an impressive display of leadership,” said the aide. “The wise men and women of the Senate and House gathered in Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s [D-Calif.] office to negotiate the TARP package. Dodd and Baucus stood up to the White House and House.”

Even today, lawmakers are surprised to hear the two senators are close. Two senior lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee said they had no idea.

“I honestly don’t know their relationship,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a senior member of Finance, who is one of Dodd’s closer friends.

Conrad, who also worked on the TARP legislation, said he did not recall Dodd and Baucus working together that closely.

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“They had kind of separate negotiating lanes,” he said.

Dodd and Baucus first got to know each other in 1975 while serving as House freshmen stuck in cramped offices next door to each other.

“Our offices were next door to each other in the Cannon building,” Dodd said. “Max gave me a great chair years ago, a wing-back chair.”

A former Democratic aide who worked with Baucus and Dodd said the two lawmakers “always were very friendly and had a good relationship.”

The former aide said that Dodd would “never take the lead when other lawmakers were hammering Max for bucking the party.”

Their ideological differences could ultimately bridge the divide in the Senate and clear the way for passage of the healthcare bill. But right now, the divisions are stark.

Dodd is more trusted among the party. Baucus has more credibility among GOP lawmakers.

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), one of the few lawmakers to serve on both the Finance and HELP committees, praised Baucus’s willingness to negotiate with Republicans on healthcare reform.

“It is way left,” Enzi said of the HELP healthcare bill. “On the [Finance] bill we’ve had input for several weeks.”

If Dodd can bring Democrats to the negotiating table and Baucus can bring along Republicans, the Senate may be able to pass a reform bill with more than 60 votes this summer.