By Jeffrey Young - 09/17/09 06:11 PM EDT
The relationship between Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), a key player in the healthcare debate, and the White House remains strained over barbs traded during the August recess, Grassley indicated Thursday.
Grassley blasted accusations made by White House aides that his ultimately unsuccessful efforts to work on a bipartisan healthcare bill with committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and others were insincere.
Grassley also took direct aim at President Barack Obama, suggesting that he soured the chances for cooperation.
“I’ll tell you, there’s some things that the president has said since then that I took very personally,” Grassley said. “He gave some speeches during August in which he was associating me with efforts to make this a political document.”
Grassley singled out David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama, for criticism. “We’re accused by Axelrod of making political things and maybe not being serious in our negotiations,” Grassley said. “You know, that’s not a very good environment to carry on a conversation with the White House.”
Obama courted Grassley earlier in the year, viewing him as a critical swing vote that could help propel bipartisan cooperation on healthcare reform. The “Gang of Six” bipartisan negotiations led by Baucus and Grassley indeed held out the best hope for legislation that could win Republican support, but when Baucus introduced the bill Wednesday, he did so without any GOP backing.
That courtship has run its course without consummation, Grassley said. “You know what? I have not had a face-to-face conversation or a telephone conversation with either the president or anybody on the White House staff since that meeting we had” the first week of August, when Baucus, Grassley, Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Republican Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) visited with the president.
During the contentious August recess, Democrats were angered when Grassley stoked fears that their healthcare proposals would create “death panels” that would make decisions regarding end-of-life care. Though Grassley actually supported provisions in the draft Finance Committee bill — since removed — that would have paid doctors to counsel Medicare patients on their options, he told a constituent that concerns about “death panels” were legitimate.
“You have every right to fear. You shouldn’t have counseling at the end of life; you should have done that 20 years before. Should not have a government-run plan to decide when to pull the plug on Grandma,” Grassley said at a town hall meeting in Winterset, Iowa, on Aug. 12.
Grassley was upset when Obama, during a speech in Grand Junction, Colo., on Aug. 15, seemed to refer to the Iowans remarks from a few days earlier.
"What you can't do -- or you can, but you shouldn't do -- is start saying things like, we want to set up death panels to pull the plug on Grandma," Obama said. "I mean, when you start making arguments like that, that's simply dishonest, especially when I hear the arguments coming from members of Congress in the other party who, turns out, sponsored similar provisions." Iowa Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley went after Grassley directly, as well.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs responded at the time by saying, “Quite honestly, I'm so offended at that terminology because it absolutely isn’t in the bill. There's no reason to gin up fear in the American public by saying things that are not included in the bill.”
Furthermore, Grassley’s reelection campaign distributed a fundraising letter in which he is quoted saying, “I had to rush you this Air-Gram today to set the record straight on my firm and unwavering opposition to government-run health care. And ask your immediate support in helping me defeat 'Obama-care’ … The simple truth is that I am and always have been opposed to the Obama administration's plan to nationalize health care. Period.”
Axelrod responded by saying that such a letter, along with other statements by Grassley and Enzi, “suggested they don’t want to participate” in bipartisan talks. “If you're sitting at a table negotiating in good faith, then you probably don't send out mailers saying, ‘Help me stop Obama-care.’ That's just common sense,” Axelrod said at the time.
Grassley said Thursday that his remarks on both the “death panels” and “Obama-care” were merely reiterations of his long-held position against creating a government-run public option insurance program, as Obama and most Democrats support.
“What about the fundraising letter?" Grassley said Thursday. “I said, ‘I oppose Obama-care because of the public option.’ Doesn’t mean that there’s other things in the healthcare [plan] that I’m against. The letter was to tell people that I was against [a] public option, and that’s exactly what the letter said.”