Ganging up on Baucus: Senator's plan garners bipartisan grumbles

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) finally introduced his much-anticipated healthcare reform bill Wednesday — and was rewarded with a chorus of disapproval from both the left and the right.

The Finance Committee chairman has huddled for months with a bipartisan Gang of Six senators in hope of devising a compromise.

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But it hasn’t worked, at least not yet. The right hates it, the left thinks it’s weak and the center may not be as broad as Baucus hoped.

As he unveiled the bill, Baucus stood by himself, a lonely, but upbeat figure on a podium in his committee’s stately hearing room. The gang’s three Republicans made clear they were not on his side.

Baucus’s bill and his exclusion of all but two other Democrats from negotiations met with ambivalence to downright rejection from most Democrats, especially liberals.

There are no Republican supporters but, additionally, there is resistance from Democrats, including key senators on Baucus’s panel. It is clear that the bill will get out of committee only if there are significant changes made to it.

But every move to the left further alienates Republicans and makes it more likely that Democrats will invoke controversial budget-reconciliation procedures to pass the bill by a simple majority.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) praised Baucus for his work but made it plain that the draft bill needs work.

“There will be a healthy and vigorous debate in the Finance Committee as senators work to strengthen this proposal,” Reid said.

Finance Committee Democrats plan to raise amendments on a plethora of issues, a development Baucus said he anticipates and welcomes.

Their chief complaint is that Baucus did not include a proposal to create a government-run public option health insurance program to compete with private companies. Democrats also want to boost the assistance middle-class families would get to buy health insurance.

Increased funding for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program is also on the agenda.

Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.), one of Baucus’s Democratic partners during the negotiations, is among only a few Democrats to express strong support for the bill. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), the other Democrat in the Gang of Six, is a strong bet to back the bill but still wants to see its assistance for the middle class beefed up.

Centrist Democrats in the House may have given Baucus’s measure its warmest welcome.

“The draft released by Chairman Baucus addresses two central goals of the Blue Dog Coalition and the administration: It is deficit-neutral and it takes real steps to bring down the cost of healthcare over the long term,” Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), a leader of the 52-member Blue Dog Coalition, said in a statement.

Liberals in the House panned the bill. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reiterated her support for a public option in the final legislation.

Baucus continued to maintain that his strategy would bear out.

“At the end of the day, we will get bipartisan support and we’re going to pass it,” Baucus said.
“This is a good bill. This is a balanced bill. It can pass the Senate,” Baucus added.

The measure, if it clears the Finance Committee, would still need to be melded with the more liberal measure that has passed the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee along party lines.

The decisions by Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and GOP Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) to withhold their support seriously damages the prospects of a bipartisan vote in committee or on the Senate floor.

In the meantime, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Senate Republicans soundly rejected Baucus’s would-be compromise as just another liberal healthcare bill.

Even if no Republican signs on to the bill, the great lengths to which Baucus went to win them over could give Democrats some political cover if they decide to press ahead with reconciliation.

The White House indicated that the Gang of Six’s work has been beneficial.

“I don’t think that Sen. Baucus or President Obama or others asking Republicans to be involved, to give us their ideas, is time poorly spent at all. I think the American people want to hear both sides’ ideas on this,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

But negativity from committee Democrats is more threatening to Baucus’s ability to get his bill through a committee on which his party has a three-vote advantage.

So far, only Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is on record opposing the bill as introduced.

Recognizing the conflict that could result from a battle between Rockefeller and Baucus during the committee’s proceedings, President Barack Obama invited the West Virginian for a sit-down at the White House on Wednesday.

But beyond Rockefeller, other Finance Committee Democrats have expressed misgivings about Baucus’s proposal, setting up the troubling prospect that Baucus’s attempt to expand the political center merely resulted in alienating the political left.

Obama also met Wednesday with Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Bob Bennett (R-Utah), who have introduced their own healthcare bill.

Rockefeller and other key senators, such as Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), are strong proponents of creating a government-run public option to compete with private insurance companies. Several committee Democrats, including Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), have said that

Baucus’s bill does not provide adequate assistance to help middle-class families afford insurance.

Even Reid quibbled that the bill would increase Nevada’s Medicaid costs.

Jared Allen, Michael O’Brien and Sam Youngman contributed to this article