Dems warn Baucus with gavel threat

In an apparent warning to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), some liberal Democrats have suggested a secret-ballot vote every two years on whether or not to strip committee chairmen of their gavels.

Baucus, who is more conservative than most of the Democratic Conference, has frustrated many of his liberal colleagues by negotiating for weeks with Republicans over healthcare reform without producing a bill or even much detail about the policies he is considering.

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“Every two years the caucus could have a secret ballot on whether a chairman should continue, yes or no,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “If the ‘no’s win, [the chairman’s] out.

“I’ve heard it talked about before,” he added.

Harkin did not mention Baucus, but his suggestion would likely resonate with the senior Montana Democrat, who has often clashed with his colleagues over important bills.

Liberals are also upset by reports that Baucus and other members of the Finance panel have tossed aside the proposal to create a robust government-run insurance program.

Harkin and Baucus are on different sides of the question of whether to create a government-run insurance plan.

While Harkin, a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, wants a strong public option, Baucus has favored a more modest proposal to set up a co-op program.

Some senators suggest privately that Baucus might be more open to persuasion if his chairmanship is subject to regular votes.

Another senior Democratic senator endorsed Harkin’s suggestion but declined to speak on the record for fear of angering Baucus.

“Put me down as a yes, but if you use my name I’ll send a SWAT team after you,” said the lawmaker when asked about a biennial referendum on chairmen.

Some Democrats have pushed back against criticism of Baucus.

A Senate source argued that critics do not have a realistic view of what it takes to enact an overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system.

“Those members who want everything they’ve ever dreamed of and want it now don’t have a plan — or the votes — to get it,” said the source. “This bipartisan Finance group isn’t focusing on politics or partisanship; it’s focused on results — delivering real healthcare reform, the president’s top priority this year.”

The plan Baucus is negotiating would address many Democratic priorities, such as lowering insurance prices for middle-class families and prohibiting insurance companies from discriminating on the basis of pre-existing conditions. Baucus has appeared to respond to pressure from colleagues, announcing on Wednesday new details of his negotiations with Republicans and promising his bill would extend insurance coverage to 95 percent of legal U.S. residents.

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It is unclear whether the idea of a secret-ballot vote on chairmanships would gain much momentum in the conference.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who survived a secret-ballot referendum on his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee in November, said he would oppose such a vote on all chairmen.

Lieberman noted that the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, which is headed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), recommends who should serve as committee chairmen at the start of each Congress, picks then ratified by the Democratic Conference as a whole.

But this process has become pro-forma except in extreme circumstances, such as the aftermath of Lieberman’s decision to endorse Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential election. Some lawmakers would like referendums on chairman to become more regular.

Senate Republicans have implemented term limits on chairmen and ranking committee members in their conference. Republican lawmakers may only serve three full terms as the chairman of a panel.

But Senate Democrats have no limits. This means Baucus could continue to have an outsize influence on major legislation for years to come. He is 67 years old, relatively young by Senate standards.

And despite the complaints of liberals, Baucus has retained the support of Reid, who sees Baucus’s efforts as essential to crafting a plan that can win 60 votes on the Senate floor.

As the senior Democrat on Finance, Baucus has played a major role in crafting legislation, going back to former President George W. Bush’s 2001 tax package and Bush’s 2003 Medicare prescription drug plan.

Once again, he has emerged as a lead negotiator in a landmark policy debate, and some lawmakers think he will end up defining healthcare reform.

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“The solution is coming, I think, in the Senate Finance Committee,” Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.), a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, said in a recent television interview.

Liberal advocacy groups and labor unions have tried to pressure Baucus to support the public option, but to little avail. Some liberal advocates have even given up on Baucus.

“I don’t think we’re going to change Max Baucus’s mind,” said Gerry Shea, assistant to the president for governmental affairs at the AFL-CIO, who added that Baucus would not be targeted in grassroots activities planned for August.

Liberals have stifled their gripes for the past several weeks, but it appears their patience is nearing its end.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a member of the HELP Committee, said it would be very difficult for him to support a healthcare package that did not include a strong public option. On Tuesday he grumbled about the slow pace of Finance Committee negotiations: “I’m not happy with the slowness there.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a senior liberal lawmaker, complained to reporters last week about being left out of Finance Committee talks despite serving as chairman of the panel’s Healthcare subcommittee.