Wyden is winning over the GOP on healthcare

The Oregon Democrat doesn’t chair a committee in the upper chamber and represents one of the most liberal states. Yet Wyden has emerged as a potential game-changer by insisting the legislation have strong support across the aisle and forging a partnership with a GOP senator who has the Senate minority leader’s ear.

Republicans are so impressed with Wyden’s bill that some are convinced he represents President Obama’s best chance for getting major healthcare reform signed into law this Congress.

And while Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Max Baucus (Mont.) may chair the committees charged with shepherding the bill through the Senate, Wyden, a 6-foot-4 former college basketball player, has his own advantage: a standing invitation to play hoops with the president at the White House, which may come in handy when hashing out the final details behind the scenes.

For Wyden, the key to passing lasting healthcare reform is finding a legislative solution that can win at least 70 votes in the Senate — and he’s not shy about letting Democrats know that means dropping thoughts of a government-run public plan for the entire nation.

To make his case, he has met individually with more than 80 Senate colleagues to discuss his proposals. He has envisioned his role as neutral broker so vividly that during the height of the Democratic presidential primary, Wyden refused to back either Obama or then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Wyden counts among his closest friends Sens. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), who is a confidant of Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is widely respected and has a knack for persuading colleagues to support compromises.

Bennett has signed on as the chief GOP co-sponsor of Wyden’s bill and has persuaded two other members of the Senate Republican leadership to join him: Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.).

“The history of bringing about enduring change, change that is going to last, change that people are going to rally behind — that history is predicated on bringing people together,” Wyden said during an interview in his Senate office. “There’s a real path of getting an upwards of 70 votes for historic health reform, where the country can say, after all these years of bickering and fighting and polarizing contentious debate, people really came together.”

Wyden’s support among Republicans is surprising because he is far from the far-right of his own party. He is the son of a muckraking journalist who smoked cigars with Fidel Castro. After college, Wyden founded the Oregon chapter of the Gray Panthers, a liberal advocacy group for senior citizens that borrowed its name from the radical black-power activists of the 1960s, albeit with some humor. One of the group’s first victories was passage of a referendum reducing the price of dentures.

“Sen. Wyden, by virtue of spending a lot of time on the issue and having attracted a lot of Republicans and Democrats, is a strong force,” said Alexander. “Senators that know an issue earn the respect of other senators, and we listen to them.”

Wyden’s standing with the left may be essential if he is to persuade the majority to strike a compromise over the principal sticking point in the debate: the availability of a government-run health insurance option.

However, he has already come under fire from unions for proposing to cut a tax exclusion for health benefits to pay for his plan.

And liberals are demanding that all Americans have access to a government-run healthcare plan. Republicans say that making a government-run health insurance option available to all Americans would be a march to “single-payer health insurance” and “socialized medicine,” and would drive private insurance companies out of business.

Wyden’s chief innovation is to be one of the first Democrats to call for universal coverage and for the private sector to serve as the principal provider.

Wyden said Republicans recognize everyone needs to be covered, and that the current system is not cost-effective because the insured are already paying the bills of the uninsured.

Democrats, he said, know the private sector must play “a significant role” to preserve innovation and cannot be saddled with price controls.

“I think the first thing our group has tried to bring to this discussion is a recognition there is philosophical truce almost within the Senate’s grasp and the country’s grasp,” Wyden said.

Wyden has sought a middle ground by proposing that the government offer a public plan option only in underserved areas, such as regions where consumers have only two private plans to choose from.

Alexander said he decided to support Wyden’s bill because it embodied two principles: “everybody insured” and “private sector.”

Gregg, who has participated regularly in negotiations over the healthcare proposal that Democratic leaders will soon bring to the floor, said Wyden has “shown you can develop a large coalition around an approach to solving this by using the private sector as the essence of a healthcare reform initiative.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, said that he, Finance Committee Chairman Baucus and other negotiators are borrowing from Wyden’s plan to assemble a package that lawmakers will soon consider on the Senate floor.

“I agree with a lot of things in the Wyden plan and I believe a lot of those will be included,” Grassley said. “A good share of it could be a model.”

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