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New Test for Old Alliance

For eight and a half years, the stability and strength of the relationship between Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has bedeviled their colleagues, but never more so than this year, as the two attempt to reconfigure the nation’s health care system.

Senators in both parties have become increasingly anxious about the secretive health care policy meetings the two men have led daily with a group of four other Finance members. But both Baucus and Grassley said they have the utmost confidence in each other as they move through a process that has worked so well for them in the past.

“We do like each other, but I don’t think that’s the key element,— Grassley said of his relationship with Baucus. “The key element is that we trust each other.—

Grassley, who has traded the Finance gavel with Baucus four times over the past decade, said he and his Democratic colleague share a similar philosophy: “I think we both believe we get paid well to do a job. … And we both believe that nothing happens in the Senate that’s not bipartisan.—

For his part, Baucus has often gone out of his way to praise Grassley, regardless of whether they agree on a particular bill.

“In this line of work you meet a lot of elected officials and Chuck Grassley is among the finest. He takes an honest, pragmatic approach to solving problems and the results are clear — he delivers,— Baucus said in a statement. “While we don’t always agree, I never doubt that Chuck always has the best interest of Iowa and the entire nation at heart. As we work to craft meaningful health care reform legislation that lowers costs and ensures quality care, I couldn’t ask for a better partner than my friend Chuck Grassley.—

Last week, Grassley and fellow Republican health care negotiator Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) appeared ready to walk away from the table, primarily because of what they said was pressure from Democratic leaders to meet “arbitrary deadlines— on a deal. However, unrest among Republican rank and file, as well as in the GOP leadership, was clearly a factor in the breakdown in talks as well.

However, sources said Grassley’s long-standing alliance with Baucus brought him back into negotiations and resulted in an internal deadline of Sept. 15 that the six agreed to try to meet. Baucus and Grassley have for weeks led the private talks in the Finance Committee, hoping to get a workable health care bill with Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Republican Sens. Enzi and Olympia Snowe (Maine).

“There’s always some difficult moments, but never anything … that would ever break down,— Grassley said.

Indeed, negotiations between the two men have collapsed before, but the collegial working relationship never has.

[IMGCAP(1)]“Even if they don’t end up in agreement on [health care], they’ll still be as strong as ever,— said one former Senate staffer. “They get as far as they can and each one understands that each gave it a strong, honest effort.—

One senior Senate Democratic aide said the Senators seem “to like it when their party leadership pushes on them. … It’s their common streak of obstinacy.—

Also a common thread is that neither Senator toes the party line, and neither apologies for it.

Democrats have long been suspicious of Baucus and his relationship with Grassley, largely because some Democrats perceive Baucus as compromising party principles for the sake of having a bipartisan bill. Grassley has suffered some of the same mistrust among Republicans, who often fear his loyalties lie more with Baucus than with them.

The duo has met once a week for nearly eight years and can count a litany of successes — many of which have inspired ire from their colleagues — including the creation of a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, the 2004 pension bill, “fast track— trade authority, and even a bill creating incentives for adoption.

Grassley said the pressure from leadership and within the GOP and Democratic conferences is always part of the process for them.

“We don’t ignore it. We listen to it and consider it,— he said. “I owe it to my Republican colleagues.—

Members of the bipartisan group of six said the Baucus-Grassley relationship has been the key to the progress they all feel they’re making on forging what could end up being the only bipartisan health care bill to emerge from any Congressional committee this year.

“Chairman Baucus and ranking member Grassley’s relationship is obviously the linchpin … and certainly is the impetus for making this group possible,— Snowe said. “They established a benchmark by virtue of that long-standing cooperative bipartisan relationship, which has resulted, as I said, in signature and landmark initiatives that have become law. … No one questions, you know, anybody’s, you know, commitment or motivation. … That’s abundantly clear. That makes it much easier.—

Snowe added, “The chairman could have thrown down a mark and just said, This is it. Let’s start marking up.’ But he chose not to do that. He’s gone through a much more arduous process.—

When asked whether the health care debate was yet another example of Baucus giving too much policy ground to Republicans, Senate Finance Subcommittee on Health Care Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said, “There’s a bit of that here. You can’t argue against trying to get 60 votes, but you can argue against trying to get 60 votes if it begins to lose you votes that you might otherwise have gotten— from Democrats.

Rockefeller and other Democrats have bristled at being excluded from the bipartisan Finance talks, as well as at the policy proscriptions the group appears to be considering. Rockefeller has been most outspoken about the potential pitfalls of not creating a public insurance option, the preference of most Democrats, including President Barack Obama. The Baucus-Grassley group has instead been contemplating having a government-sponsored, nonprofit health care cooperative that would compete with private insurers.

Of course, suspicions run high on the Republican side as well. As one senior GOP aide put it: “There’s a palatable concern amongst the Conference because of Grassley’s track record of putting them in tough positions.—

Indeed, many Republicans see the co-op model as just another way of opening the door to government-controlled health care.

“Obviously, there’s a concern that something might be agreed upon that hasn’t been run by the Conference and leadership,— said one Republican Senator. That’s why, this Senator said, Republican leaders have cautioned Grassley, “Please, don’t make any deals without at least talking with— the Conference.

However, Republicans have been comforted by the fact that on health care, Baucus and Grassley are not in the room alone, as they have been on previous occasions.

“I think having other people there — it’s unlikely that Chuck goes alone on this,— said the Republican Senator. “The group dynamic — it’s helpful to him and it’s probably helpful to us, too.—

Plus, the senior Senate GOP aide said the enormity of reconfiguring one-sixth of the economy does not appear to be lost on Grassley, who is up for a sixth term next year.

“The bottom line is the stakes have never been bigger,— the aide said. “I think we’re seeing encouraging signs that [Grassley’s] not going to go rogue.—

Still, GOP leaders have attempted to sow doubts in Grassley’s mind by reminding him repeatedly of his experience with Baucus on the children’s health insurance bill they both championed in 2008. Though the Senate had a veto-proof majority for the measure, the House sustained then-President George W. Bush’s rejection of the measure.

Looking to push the same measure again in 2009, Grassley found that Democrats were more interested in passing a different children’s health insurance measure, and he and many other Republicans ended up walking away from the bill that was enacted.

Grassley acknowledged the reminders he’s been getting from his leadership as the health care talks proceed but said he knows that the State Children’s Health Insurance Program situation had nothing to do with Baucus’ commitment to their original agreement.

GOP leaders have “made that point, and they made it very clear,— Grassley said. “But if I thought it was Baucus’ fault that SCHIP didn’t work out, then I’d blame him.—

He added, “I blame people above him.—

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