For Baucus, Health Care Is the Issue Of a Lifetime
Legislation Could Define His Career, His Party
By Shailagh Murray and Ceci Connolly, Staff Writers
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, may be
President Obama's most critical ally on health-care reform.
But which version of the independent-minded Montanan will
preside as the debate intensifies this summer?
Republicans hope it's the cautious loner with a history of
betraying his party on politically sensitive bills.
Democrats are rooting for the iconoclast who emerged this year
as a newly reliable champion of the administration's ambitious
Now 67, Baucus remains a Senate original in a chamber that has
become increasingly homogeneous. He once confessed to
viewing politics as "dirty, corrupted and tainted," but he
hasn't lost a race in his conservative state since 1972.
By dint of his seniority, Baucus is responsible for delivering
the biggest breakthrough in health policy since Medicare was
enacted nearly 45 years ago.
The bill that sits atop Obama's priority list is legislation
that could define the Democratic Party for years to come.
With the first committee votes just weeks away, Baucus seems
acutely aware that the legislative and political challenge
before him is greater than any he has encountered. After
the spectacular collapse of President Bill Clinton's health-care
overhaul in 1994, Congress retreated to a piecemeal approach.
It was tedious and unsatisfying.
"I'm sick and tired of being the maintenance senator, the
extender senator," he said in his spacious corner office on
Capitol Hill. "Here, we're doing something. It's
holistic, it's our health-care apparatus. We don't even
have a system in America, really, and the idea is to
get some structure, some meaning. You add it all together,
and it's strategic. It's fun. A lot of senators want
to participate in it, and groups do. They know that the
train is leaving the station. There's a sense of
Under his direction, the Finance Committee is attempting to
draft legislation that expands coverage and lowers costs without
adding to the deficit. Baucus is committed to delivering
universal coverage and getting more and better care from health
dollars, and he is seriously considering an individual mandate
-- requiring adults to have health insurance -- and taxing
employer-provided health insurance.
The resulting bill would probably raise taxes, squeeze Medicare
and broaden the government's role in health care -- all electric
issues certain to provoke Republicans and myriad interest
The stakes are high for everyone, but especially for the quirky
chairman, whose legislative record remains something of a
"In the end, Max Baucus's goal is to illustrate that on this
issue he can deliver," said Democratic health strategist Chris
Jennings. "This has become what he wants for a legacy
Liberal Democrats and constituencies such as organized labor
have questioned Baucus's party allegiance since he broke ranks
on President George W. Bush's 2001 tax cuts and defected two
years later to support a GOP-crafted Medicare prescription drug
benefit. But in 2005, Baucus helped to sabotage Bush's
Social Security privatization bid, and he was willing to cross
his good friend Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) on the
children's health insurance bill this year in order to expand
coverage to children of recent immigrants.
Baucus may appear an unlikely standard-bearer, but "once he's
committed, he's tenacious," said Len Nichols, head of health
policy at the New America Foundation.
For more than a year, Baucus has schooled himself -- and many on
the committee -- on the daunting complexities of the U.S. health-care system, a sector
that represents one-sixth of the economy. His approach has
been to pull together stakeholders and hold them as long as
possible; no idea is ruled out, no policy change
dismissed. In recent weeks, he has convened eight-hour
sessions with Democrats and Republicans on the panel as part of
his determination to craft a bipartisan solution. His
mantra is always the same: "Suspend judgment, if only for
Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International
Union, praised Baucus for being inclusive but warned that he is
running out of time.
"There's a moment at which you have to make real choices.
We're entering that stage," said Stern, whose union ran ads
against Baucus after his support of the Bush tax cuts.
"He's going to start taking some flak. His job now is to
see the finish line and not get distracted by all the land
The scion of a wealthy ranching family, Baucus runs 100-mile
ultra-marathons and displays a photo of himself on a bucking
bronco in his office reception area. As an undergraduate
University, he bummed around Europe and
Africa for months. For his 50th birthday bash,
he rolled into a hotel ballroom on his black-and-white
Harley-Davidson as the band played "Leader of the Pack."
In 30 years in the Senate, Baucus has never sought party
leadership positions or seized hold of a high-profile policy
issue and made it his. His interests have remained mostly
Montana-centric, including intricate trade and agricultural
He is best known as one of the few Western Democrats to hold on
in hostile territory. Starting in 1972, when Baucus was
elected to the state legislature,
has voted for GOP presidential candidates in every race except
the 1992 one.
To hold on to his seat, Baucus has often frustrated his party in Washington. In the
1994 health-care debate, Baucus sided with the National
Federation of Independent Business over
Clinton's proposal on employer mandates
and said proposed regional insurance cooperatives "smack of
excess government and the smell of socialism."
After Bush won Montana
decisively in 2000, Baucus became one of his closest allies on
tax policy, and in his reelection campaign the following year,
the senator ran ad footage of Bush praising his "fantastic work"
on a trade bill.
Still, Baucus reveres the bipartisan tradition of the Finance
Committee and has pledged to uphold it, despite the intense
polarization that otherwise dominates Congress today. In
the eight years that Baucus and Grassley have run the committee,
just four bills have passed on party-line votes.
"That's a pretty good record of bipartisanship," Grassley said.
But the exceptions were significant, including Bush's 2003
business tax package and the children's health bill that Baucus
agreed to expand over Grassley's objections.
Already, Baucus is caught in the crossfire over whether to
include a government-sponsored insurance program in the bill.
"I think his biggest hurdle is he's got a large share of his
caucus who thinks government can run health care better than the
private sector, and they want that intervention," Grassley said.
Baucus "is not in favor of that extreme position." But
Grassley added, "He's in favor of it to more of a degree than I
Baucus was more sanguine. "It's like a lot of things
around here," he said. "When there's an impasse, you start
asking questions about assumptions. . . . You start to realize
there's more commonality than you originally thought."
By his own concession, Baucus is no Edward M. Kennedy, the
widely acknowledged Senate expert on health policy. Nor is
Baucus an intellectual force on a par with the late Daniel
Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who chaired the panel in 1994.
Moynihan wanted Clinton
to address Social Security and welfare before tackling health
"Pat Moynihan was a wonderful, wonderful guy, but he didn't
believe in this," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "The
Senate Finance Committee under Max Baucus has never gotten out
of the gate faster and more aggressively on health reform.
That's about leadership."
Last May, around the time Kennedy received a diagnosis of
terminal brain cancer, Baucus began studying health care in
private tutoring sessions and through a series of public
hearings. In June, he convened a day-long health summit at
the Library of Congress and invited his friend Federal Reserve
Chairman Ben S. Bernanke to deliver the keynote address.
It was Bernanke who helped Baucus see health care through the
prism of the overall economy. At the same time, candidate
Obama was taking a similar approach on the campaign trail.
On Nov. 12, days after Obama was elected, Baucus issued his
health policy white paper, "Call to Action."
Baucus likes to tell how Princeton
economist Uwe E. Reinhardt used the paper in class. "It
made me feel maybe there's something to this; maybe I'm on the
right track. I'm very proud of it," Baucus said.
Over a recent congressional break, he asked 10 senators to read
the paper -- and "some of them did," he marveled.
As the process unfolded, even old friends weren't sure they
"He's a guy who loves challenges," said his longtime top aide
Jim Messina, now deputy White House chief of staff. "But
I've never seen him this focused and obsessed."
Baucus speaks with
almost daily and has conferred at length with Obama.
Baucus and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B.
Rangel (D-N.Y.) recently accompanied Obama to
Latin America and spent an hour in the president's
Air Force One cabin briefing him on their progress. Baucus
and Grassley recently had a private lunch with Obama and Vice
President Biden. The senator consults frequently with
Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, White House health czar
Nancy-Ann DeParle and budget chief Peter Orszag. And he
has instituted a weekly session with chief economic adviser
Lawrence H. Summers.
And yet Baucus remains nervous that Democratic leaders and the
White House will jump out ahead of him. His worries are
not unwarranted. The administration pressed Congress last
month to adopt a special budget rule that would allow the Senate
to pass a health bill with a simple 51-vote majority,
effectively cutting out Republicans and even moderate Democrats.
"We don't want to get blindsided," he has said.
Baucus knows that some Democrats are leery about his loyalties,
but he insists that passing a bill supersedes his desire for
bipartisanship. "They may get to the point where they're
not there," he said of Republicans. "The president wants a
bipartisan bill; I want a bipartisan bill, because it's
more sustainable. I hope that happens; I think
there's a good chance that that might happen. But I don't
know. Crunch time is coming up here pretty soon."