Liberals, conservatives pose threat to Baucus bill

The Senate Finance Committee is aiming to do something that rarely works in Congress: pass high-profile legislation that is embraced by centrists but opposed by the left and the right.

Even though some of the policies in the Finance Committee’s yet-to-be-released bill have not been revealed, the political strategy of getting the bill to President Barack Obama’s desk is clear.

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Finance Committee leaders Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) know that if they can strike a deal, it will likely be rejected by legislators on the left and the right. But the many centrists in the Senate may embrace it, which could lead to backing from a White House that is desperate for Congress to pass health reform in 2009.

“This could take off, or the extremes [on both sides] could kill it,” said a source who is working to forge a compromise.

In the spring, Baucus stressed that any type of healthcare reform has to bring together both political parties, saying, "It has to be bicameral and bipartisan. My first preference is 60, maybe 70 votes, when it is all said and done."

Should Baucus, Grassley and the other senators involved in the discussions reach an accord, it would pose major hurdles. It first has to be melded with the more liberal version that was reported out by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Then, it would eventually have to emerge out of conference with the House bill.

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) has cautioned that if he agrees to sign off on the Finance Committee version, he doesn’t want it altered.

Not surprisingly, Democratic senators on the HELP Committee and House Democrats find Enzi’s proposal ludicrous.

Yet the Finance bill will likely be the only healthcare measure that will have bipartisan backing. Not one Republican has supported the healthcare legislation that has been approved by the HELP Committee or the three committees of jurisdiction in the House.

Should a healthcare reform bill be signed into law, it will be remembered as Obama’s legacy. So while it remains to be seen if GOP leaders in the House and Senate will back the Finance bill, such a move appears unlikely.

When Republicans controlled Congress during George W. Bush’s presidency, they sometimes cut deals with Democrats to nab needed votes. But many of the big-ticket items were touted by right-wing lawmakers.

After waiting eight years for the White House, many liberals in Congress have no appetite to pass a down-the-middle healthcare bill — especially with comfortable Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

Should the Finance Committee unveil a bipartisan bill, it could resemble the 2007 fight over immigration reform.

Stitched together by an unusual coalition led by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the bill was strongly supported by President George W. Bush. Yet it finally fell on a cloture vote after heavy lobbying by right-wing critics and Senate conservatives like Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and David Vitter (R-La.). Worried about its guest-worker provisions, powerful organized labor officials refused to endorse the bill.

Graham says this year’s healthcare effort shares some similarities with the immigration debate of two years ago.

“I’m getting very worried about that analogy because I’m afraid we’re going to lose public support for a middle way,” Graham said. “The more and more we talk about a public option and radical reform, public support is going to drop and we can’t afford as a nation to never be able to solve a hard problem.”

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There are some liberal senators who have suggested they will vote against any bill that fails to include a public option. The Finance Committee is not expected to have a public option.

Conservatives in Congress, including DeMint, are planning for a battle on healthcare.

DeMint said immigration reform died in 2007 because of a massive public outcry against the bill, and the South Carolina senator added he hopes to stoke the same momentum this time around.

“We had enough time for people to find out what was in the bill, and millions of people started calling here,” DeMint said. “It wasn’t so much a moderate-liberal-conservative thing, it was just millions of e-mails and calls. It shut down the e-mail systems here. And so many members changed their minds.

“That’s our hope now, that we can go home in August, take the passed bill or marked-up bill and put it on the Internet and let people know what’s really in it. Because just like the immigration bill, the cover page wasn’t what was really in the bill.”

McCain last week rejected the immigration-healthcare comparison.

“The immigration debate involved people on both sides,” McCain said. “We had on the left those who didn’t want a temporary-worker program, including the unions, and those on the right who wanted border security. So you had a very different alignment. The left was against it. The right was against it. [Healthcare reform] is Democrats versus Republicans.”