By Alexander Bolton - 08/18/09 08:51 AM EDT
Comprehensive healthcare reform legislation stalled in the Senate last month as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) spent weeks cooped up in his office with Grassley trying to hash out a healthcare deal.
Baucus and other Democratic members of the Finance Committee plan to resume negotiations with Grassley when they return in September, but leaders among the party’s liberal wing say that path leads to a “dead end.”
“We need to push the Senate to move and pass a bill at a time when Sen. Grassley will probably not support any bill the Finance Committee has formulated,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future.
“We are encouraging Finance Committee members and Senate Democrats to do their own bill and not compromise with a bunch of Republicans who are not going to vote with them anyway.”
Grassley, the senior Republican on Finance, alarmed liberals when he announced in a television interview Monday that he would not support healthcare legislation that does not have widespread Republican support.
“I’m negotiating for Republicans and if I can’t negotiate something that gets more than four Republicans, I’m not a good representative of my party,” he said on MSNBC. “It isn’t a good deal if I can’t sell my product to more Republicans.”
But no Republican in the Senate has voiced support for the core healthcare reform policies pushed by Democrats. The only members of the GOP who have shown tentative public interest are Grassley and Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine), who have spent untold hours negotiating with Baucus in the past month. Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R), who often votes with Snowe, is also considered among the most likely Republican votes.
Grassley has come out firmly in opposition to a broad, government-run health insurance program, known as the public option. He has also come out against healthcare plans passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee with only Democratic votes.
Democratic leaders have stood on the sidelines, waiting patiently for Baucus to forge a deal with Grassley in the hope that the Iowan’s endorsement would bring along more Republicans, or at least provide the 60 votes needed to push a bill through the chamber. Expectations of such an outcome were buoyed by Baucus and Grassley’s long working relationship.
But Grassley appeared to dampen, if not dash, those hopes on Monday.
When asked if he would vote against a bill that he himself considered a good deal but that lacked broader Republican support, Grassley said: “It isn’t a good deal if I can’t sell my product to more Republicans.”
The comments prompted strong reaction from liberal leaders and websites.
“Sen. Grassley made it pretty clear that the Senate Finance Committee negotiations are a dead end if the goal is getting reform passed that will meet the president’s goals,” said Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager of Health Care for America Now, a coalition of liberal and labor groups.
“Other than himself, Enzi, Snowe and Collins, there’s no indication anyone in the Senate GOP will consider reforms at all in line with what the president and Democrats support.
“We’re making it really clear to Democrats in the Senate that this is a dead end and they need to move forward on legislation themselves with the goals that the president supports,” Kirsch said.
Senate Democratic leaders have floated a Sept. 15 deadline for Finance Committee negotiations, but leading Democrats on the panel have pushed back.
“We will be ready when we are ready,” Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who is negotiating with Baucus and Grassley, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We will not be bound by any deadline.”
Other than the Sept. 15 deadline, which Democratic aides have floated in the press, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has given little indication of how he will handle Baucus and Grassley next month.
The leader has voiced support for Obama’s proposal but has also backed Baucus by reminding the public of the difficulty of mustering 60 votes.
Grassley’s comments have stirred more concern among liberal activist leaders than front-page press reports that the Obama administration is backing away from the public option.
Liberal strategists dismissed media reports as overblown in a slow news month.
“I don’t think anything’s changed,” said Mike Lux, CEO of Progressive Strategies.
Kirsch of Health Care for America Now said: “There was no real news.
“No real change in their position,” he said in reference to the administration.
A contributing editor on Daily Kos, a leading liberal blog, wrote: “On Sunday, media outlets tripped over themselves to declare the death of the public option after [Secretary of Health and Human Services] Kathleen Sebelius told CNN’s John King that a public option is ‘not the essential element’ of healthcare reform.
“In chasing the Sebelius comments, those very same media outlets ignored [White House press secretary] Robert Gibbs’ appearance on CBS’ ‘Face the Nation’ in which he both defended the public option and reiterated the president’s support for it.”