Liberals uneasy about dimming prospects for public plan option

Advocates of a so-called public option are worried that their vision of a revamped healthcare system will be watered down in the weeks and months to come.

And they are pointing the finger at Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who has defied his president by not releasing his reform legislation while ironing out its details with Republicans on his powerful panel.

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Liberals who want a large government role in healthcare reform have reasons to be nervous. Baucus has bucked his party in the past and his legislative track record is impressive. He backed President Bush’s 2001 tax cuts, supported the 2003 Medicare drug bill and rejected Bush’s effort to reform Social Security.

“He does have a frustrating track record. He has not been a reliable advocate for progressive policies,” said Bill Scher, a healthcare analyst at the Campaign for America’s Future.

In his characteristically bipartisan effort, Baucus is pursuing closed-door negotiations with Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), among other Republicans. If their bill emerges as the only bipartisan measure alongside three packages backed by Democrats only, reform advocates worry a weak bill could stymie efforts for dramatic overhaul.

With that fear in mind, those who back the public option are pressuring Baucus to repeat his 2005 stand with Democrats on Social Security rather than his defections in 2001 and 2003.

Liberal organizations are providing information to left-leaning bloggers and interest groups aimed at pressuring Baucus to stand stronger on key provisions in the bill, rather than capitulating to Republicans.

“My concern is that the [Finance Committee] bill will be some attempt at a compromise [that] will mean some watered-down attempt at a solution that won’t actually be a solution,” said Charles Chamberlain, political director of Democracy for America (DFA), a group that is running television ads slamming Baucus in Montana.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Thursday that the healthcare reform measure will not hit the Senate floor until September, abandoning a pledge that action would be taken before the August congressional recess. That, reform advocates say, is a direct result of Baucus’s stalling.

“Reid would not have had to make that announcement if [Baucus] was not bending over backwards to make Chuck Grassley, Mike Enzi and [Sen.] Orrin Hatch [R-Utah] happy,” Scher said.

Grassley and Enzi are vigorous opponents of a public option.

Some conservative organizations are seizing on the Democrats’ missed deadlines.

“If Congress does not pass a healthcare bill with the public option before Labor Day, the public option is dead,” wrote Rick Scott, the head of Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, in a memo to Republican and conservative leaders.

Regardless of what the Baucus bill says, the reform advocates argue, Baucus has dragged his feet long enough, and outside organizations are ratcheting up pressure on the Finance chairman to hurry the bill.

“Baucus’s pattern of empty promises and delay must stop. There is strong support for the bills already passed by two House committees and the Senate [Health, Education, Labor and Pensions] Committee,” Scher wrote in an e-mail to a list of influential liberal bloggers and opinion leaders. “There is no reason for Baucus to stall their progress, and delay action beyond this week.”

Scher refused to discuss the e-mail he sent to the liberal list, noting the list is off the record. The Hill obtained the e-mail through another participant in the listserv.

The e-mail is chock-full of statements Baucus made between February and June promising his committee would report a bill by last month.

“You see this frustration where there’s a good bill that got out of two House committees, there’s a good bill that got out of the HELP Committee,” Scher told The Hill. “It becomes sort of silly to say, ‘Well, I have to get a couple of Republicans for window dressing.’ ”

A source close to the negotiations said the bipartisan group of senators is working on the president’s No. 1 priority.

“Members are informed and their voices are heard — the bipartisan group is in constant contact with their colleagues on the group’s progress and their staffs meet with other members’ staffs nearly every day,” the source said. “As these discussions grow closer to meaningful legislation on the president’s No. 1 priority, these members want to make certain their Democratic colleagues will be right there with them.”

Baucus has also been targeted by television advertisements run by Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee in his home state. The ads are a warning shot, both to Baucus and to others who would stand in the way of the bill’s progress.

“The worry of Democrats nationwide is that Max isn’t going to stand with Democrats, he isn’t going to stand with the president,” Chamberlain said, noting that Baucus has accepted $2.85 million in campaign money from the health sector, according to the Campaign for Responsive Politics. “If he’s not going to stand with the president and the Democratic Party and the American people, who is he standing with?”

Chamberlain said DFA is working to pressure other senators, including Grassley and Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe (R) and Susan Collins (R). The group is cutting ads that feature voters in Iowa and Maine aimed at nudging the three senators.

The number of Democrats who see ads targeting them could increase as well, Chamberlain said. Lawmakers about whom DFA members are worried include the usual centrist suspects, including Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), as well as some more liberal members who have voiced reservations.

Other potential targets include Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Senate leadership aides say they understand why Baucus is working slowly, but that his insistence on secrecy is working against him.

“We’re pushing him. The White House is pushing him. There’s only so much pushing you can do,” explained one senior leadership aide.

Aides in both chambers said Baucus should not strive to get the bill exactly right, as tweaks at various stages of the legislative process are inevitable. And though the August deadline for action is unlikely to be met, any movement, they say, would be enough to get the process moving again.

“There’s a sense that they’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the good,” the House aide concluded.

Baucus’s office would not comment publicly for this article.