Dems sore after being kept out of the room

Sen. Max Baucus spent months trying to win over Republicans on healthcare — to no avail.

But his most challenging task is convincing members of his own party that he has their interests in mind.

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Liberal Democrats have been skeptical of Baucus (D-Mont.) for years, and questioned why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) let the centrist chairman of the Senate Finance Committee spend months negotiating behind the scenes with Republicans whom they suspected would never support the bill.

Some were even insulted by the way Baucus kept them out of the closed-door meetings, choosing a narrow group they say poorly represented the party.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the panel’s Health subcommittee, has already said he will vote against the bill. He told The New York Times in July he had “basically been shut out of the process,” a point echoed by other lawmakers.

Baucus handpicked the Gang of Six, a group of lawmakers who represent states with a combined population of 8.4 million people, about the same as New York City.

“I would have liked to have been included,” said one lawmaker. “I understand that you can’t have everybody involved, but the Gang of Six was not very diverse. They’re all from small states, and that’s only part of America.”

Among the loudest praise for Baucus is coming from Republicans who participated in the talks and spent the summer criticizing his policies rather than backing a draft measure.
He’s also seen strong support from centrists in his party.

“Max Baucus gave everything a person could give. It was an extraordinary effort,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D), who participated in the talks and who represents North Dakota, a conservative-leaning state. “The talks were very careful, very methodical and very bipartisan.”

The split opinions over Baucus represent larger schools of thought about healthcare that will vie against one another for the rest of the debate. Centrists and Republicans believe that lasting reform requires bipartisan support. Liberals believe reform is important enough to push through Congress with only Democratic votes.

Senate Democrats say Baucus’s reputation will depend on what kind of legislation passes Congress — but not necessarily if it’s his bill.

“If a comprehensive bill passes, there will be no goats, even if there was a messy Finance Committee process,” said a senior Democratic aide.

But if Congress passes a patchwork bill that few Democrats or Republicans strongly support, Baucus will come under heavy criticism for how he handled negotiations. He will be blamed for allowing Republicans to shape the substance of a bill that has little or no GOP support and that Democrats will be pressured to back with little enthusiasm.

Baucus acknowledged that Republicans complicated the process by shifting, but said the complexity of the legislation was the main reason it took months to release the draft.

“There was a little of that, but it was more understanding what this is all about,” Baucus said, spreading out his arms to convey the breadth of the issues tackled.

Ironically, Baucus will spend the fall wooing members of his own party, who will now assume a role similar to that played over the summer by Republicans.

Rockefeller said there is “no way” he will vote for the bill, giving any other Democrat on the panel a chance to stymie it if he or she also votes no. The Finance panel has a 13-10 Democratic advantage.

Two Democrats on the panel, Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Robert Menendez (N.J.), have publicly voiced concerns with provisions in the legislation. And a senior Democratic aide said that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is upset about a proposed tax on medical device manufacturers.

Nelson, Menendez and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) all declined to say whether they would vote for Baucus’s bill.

Centrist Democrats and Republicans on the panel, however, praise Baucus for the way he led difficult negotiations.

Conrad said the meetings were productive but “unfortunately, we ran out of time.” He said talks were slowed by the amount of time negotiators had to wait for cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

Republican Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa) have also praised Baucus’s handling of healthcare reform.

“I especially want to highlight the good work of Chairman Max Baucus and ranking member Chuck Grassley, who have resisted the calls for partisanship in trying to develop a healthcare proposal that would provide healthcare coverage for all Americans,” Enzi wrote in a statement released Wednesday.