By Alexander Bolton - 08/25/09 03:51 PM EDT
Enzi, the top Republican on the Senate panel that sets health and labor policy and a Finance Committee member negotiating a healthcare deal, in recent weeks has made statements that have those on the left doubting he’ll back any healthcare legislation offered by Democrats.
He has panned Democratic proposals on healthcare and has issued demands that leadership promise not to change the agreements hashed out by the six negotiators on the Finance Committee.
Liberals are also alarmed at a letter Enzi sent President Barack Obama and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel calling on Obama to withdraw his nomination of Patricia Smith for solicitor of the U.S. Labor Department. In the letter, Enzi reprimanded her for inconsistent statements and testimony.
While separate from his role in healthcare talks, liberals see the letter as another sign that Enzi is emerging as a leading critic of the administration who should be eyed warily.
"There is precisely zero percent chance that Mike Enzi, an extreme right-winger who has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from insurance interests, will support anything close to real healthcare reform,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal group involved in the debate.
Michael Mahaffey, Enzi’s spokesman, said that his boss has a long record of working with Democrats.
Mahaffey noted that Enzi, as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, worked with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to pass 27 bills into law, including pension reform and mine-safety reform.
When Kennedy took control of the committee after Democrats reclaimed the majority, the two lawmakers worked together on 14 bills that became law, including reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
“I advise those people to take a long look at his record,” Mahaffey said of liberal critics. “He has a long record of working across the aisle and getting things done. Anyone who questions his intent doesn’t know him very well.”
Democrats hope that GOP Sens. Enzi, Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) can reach a deal with Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), giving them the 60 votes needed to overhaul healthcare.
But Enzi’s standard appears to be 75 to 80 votes, according to a statement he released on Aug. 20.
Grassley has also said that he wants to strike a deal that can gain widespread GOP support, raising concerns among liberal Democrats. But Democrats are generally more optimistic about Grassley, citing his long history of working with Baucus.
In the same statement, Enzi panned healthcare reform proposals favored by the Democratic leadership, saying it would “drive up costs, deny patients access to their doctors and generally make healthcare in this country worse.”
And he vowed last week that a government-run insurance plan, known as the public option, would not pass Congress.
“For millions of Americans, the government-run plan would turn into a bureaucratic nightmare, with the efficiency and customer service of the Department of Motor Vehicles or the IRS,” Enzi wrote in an op-ed for USA Today.
“Washington bureaucrats would literally decide whether patents would live or die by rationing newer, more expensive therapy,” he wrote, a reference to the he controversial claim by some conservatives that end-of-life counseling in the House bill would result in so-called “death panels.”
Before the August recess, Enzi pushed back hard against Democratic leaders’ efforts to speed up his negotiations with Baucus and floated conditions for his support that many Democrats found unreasonable.
He declared a deal on a healthcare bill “far from close” and demanded commitments from Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that they would not alter any agreement he reached with Baucus.
Enzi has had a strong record of cooperation with Kennedy, who is now battling brain cancer. But he has yet to replicate that role with the acting chairman, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). Enzi strongly criticized the healthcare bill that Dodd pushed through the committee earlier this summer on a party-line vote.