Baucus in health driver's seat, destination unknown

Liberals malign him, the White House and his Senate leaders prod him and House Democrats blame him for their troubles. But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) just keeps on keeping on.

President Obama wanted him to be done by now. So did Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her rank-and-file members have even expressed impatience with Baucus.

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Yet Baucus seems unfazed by the pressure, a sign of his personal conviction that the slow, arduous bipartisan process he kicked off more than a year ago is the only path to healthcare reform.

Obama and Reid, especially, may not like it but in a Senate where 60 votes is the threshold for success, they seem to recognize that Baucus may be right.

Whether he is could be unknowable for months. In the meantime, the whole endeavor could collapse amid intra-party squabbles among Democrats, relentless criticism from Republicans and the release of pent-up anger from special interests that for now are (mostly) playing nice.

If Baucus pulls it off, he might be remembered as the most important figure in the decades-long push for comprehensive healthcare reform.

If healthcare reform fails, or if Baucus is unable to secure some GOP support without alienating the left wing, Democrats from the Capitol Hill to the White House to the grassroots may pin the blame squarely on him. There will surely be enough scorn to go around, too, for Baucus' core group: Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Republican Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).

Baucus seemed to have a solid head start on healthcare reform when the year began. He'd spent much of last year holding hearings and public events featuring experts and lawmakers to build the foundation for a push he expected to happen if Barack Obama won the White House.

He and his staff compiled exhaustive lists of policy options and put them out for public scrutiny. Baucus began working collectively and individually with members of his committee in both parties and went all-out in the breakfast briefing circuit.

It was beginning to look like his panel would be first out of the gate with a healthcare reform bill -- and that he'd be able to bring along Grassley and other Republicans to boot, giving Baucus some serious leverage as the legislative process moved forward.

Things haven't quite worked out that way. Despite the fact that Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has been absent all year fighting brain cancer, his panel moved its bill out of committee while Baucus, Grassley and their small cadre of negotiators continue to say little more than "We're ready when we're ready."

Meanwhile, though the House is currently mired in Democratic infighting over its version of healthcare reform, Democratic leaders in that chamber also dropped their bill and pushed it through two out of three committees. They, too, await Baucus as centrist members don't want to vote for the House bill's big tax increase until they see whether the Senate will devise something more palatable to their constituents.

All the while, there's Baucus and his band of senators, alternately known as the "coalition of the willing," the "gang of six" and the "gang of seven" (before Sen. Orrin Hatch [R-Utah] pulled out). They'll be ready when they're ready.