Grassley promises not to sell out his party

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, has assured his GOP colleagues that he will not sell them out and strike a private deal with Democrats on healthcare reform, according to Republican senators.

Grassley (Iowa), who is known for having a close relationship with Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and has been negotiating behind closed doors with Democrats for weeks, made the promise to the entire Senate Republican Conference at a meeting late on Wednesday, according to several senators who attended.

Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), the senior Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, who has also participated in the negotiations, made a similar commitment. But Grassley’s words had the most impact, easing the anxieties of conservatives who feared the unpredictable Iowa senator would give Democrats the crucial bipartisan support needed to pass a $1 trillion healthcare package of Democratic priorities.

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Baucus announced Thursday that the Finance Committee would not be reporting a bill before the August recess.

“It’s probably a case of the caucus really wanting some time to reflect,” Grassley said when asked about feedback from his colleagues.

Grassley, Enzi and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), members of the so-called Group of Six, told Senate Republican leaders and colleagues at the meeting that they would not commit to the legislation without first consulting the entire GOP conference.

“They’ll show us the details of the prospective deal before they are party to anything,” said a senator who attended the meeting.

A GOP aide who was briefed on Wednesday’s meeting confirmed the lawmaker’s account.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters on Tuesday that the Finance Committee was on track to report legislation by the end of next week and that he would merge it with a proposal from the HELP Committee over the recess.

But Grassley pushed back Thursday against mounting pressure from Democratic leaders.

“It’ll be a lost opportunity if Democratic leaders in Congress and the administration force action on healthcare legislation that’s not ready because of the complexity of the issue and the high stakes in getting it right,” Grassley said in a statement.

Keeping his support for President Barack Obama’s signature issue in question is certain to keep Baucus in a precarious position with his conference. Liberal Democrats have long complained that Baucus has spent too much time catering to Grassley and moving the legislation to the center, suspecting the Iowa senator will never end up backing the bill.

And Grassley’s approach is markedly different from the one Baucus took when he was the ranking Democrat on the committee in 2001 and Republicans were trying to pass a massive package of tax cuts.

Baucus struck a deal with Republicans before giving the Democratic Conference a chance to review the deal, a maneuver that enraged his party leaders and gave bipartisan momentum to President George W. Bush’s tax package, which ultimately became law.

Grassley is not about to do that on the healthcare deal, Republicans say.

Now that Baucus is unable to report a deal by the end of next week, pressure will grow on Democratic leaders to force action on the Finance panel. That would mean pressing Baucus to report a bill with minimal GOP support or moving ahead without Baucus’s input.

“The bipartisan discussions that Chairman Baucus has led in the Senate Finance Committee have made very good progress because of his long-term commitment to bipartisanship, and could lead to a bill that makes things better, not worse, but that’ll never happen if Democrat leaders tell Republicans to take a hike by forcing the committee to move on an all-Democrat bill,” Grassley said in his statement.

Grassley and Enzi have voted against two of the biggest healthcare initiatives Democrats have championed since taking control of Congress in 2007. They both opposed the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and legislation expanding stem cell research. Both lawmakers, however, voted for legislation granting the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco.

Grassley and Enzi told colleagues during the late afternoon meeting on Wednesday that they were not nearly as close to the healthcare overhaul deal as others had indicated.

“If any of the three is going to strike a deal with Baucus, it’s going to be Grassley, and I don’t think Grassley is going to do it,” said the lawmaker, whose account was confirmed by a GOP aide with knowledge of the meeting.

A second GOP lawmaker said he would “be surprised” if Grassley agreed to anything before the monthlong break scheduled to begin Aug. 7.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said Grassley told colleagues that he and Baucus were not close to a deal.

“He didn’t sound like he had agreement on the big stuff or on numbers,” said Gregg.

Enzi has also downplayed the chance of an imminent deal.

“No deal is at hand and substantive issues, big and small, remain under discussion and need to be resolved,” Enzi said in a statement.

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During a Wednesday news conference, Reid said he thought a deal was imminent, citing remarks he had heard Grassley make on the radio earlier in the day.

But during a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Grassley clarified his remarks, explaining that nothing may happen until September.

“I think we’re on the edge of getting something. Now, when I say ‘on the edge,’ that could be within a week. It could be within two weeks, or it might not be until we get back after Labor Day.”