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Baucus’ Credibility Rests on Reform

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has set himself up to reap the maximum in political gain, or pain, in the health care debate.

With momentum building for health care reform and the process in the Finance Committee beginning to take on an air of inevitability, a Baucus victory will likely overshadow many of the missteps that some Democrats feel he made in pursuing a bipartisan bill that has yet to materialize. However, a failure would likely result in many of his Senate colleagues calling for his head.

“He’s either the hero or the goat,— said one Democratic source familiar with the process. “He set himself up in some ways to be the end-all-be-all of health care, and when you do that, you get the good and the bad.—

But the source noted, “If he pulls this off, there will be a lot of people slapping him on the back.—

Virtually no one believes Baucus will fail to push a reform bill out of his committee, despite heartburn among some liberals over the Montana Democrat’s more centrist approach. And at the end of the day, Democrats said the health care package that Baucus crafted is likely to make up 60 percent to 70 percent of the bill that makes it to the Senate floor.

That fact alone is likely to be what is remembered after the dust settles.

“Baucus has demonstrated strong leadership. He has been immersed in health care reform for the last two years and has held all sorts of hearings, meetings, roundtables and other events on the subject,— another Democratic source said. “He has more than given the Republicans a fair shake throughout this process. … The history of this process won’t be written this week by the talking heads inside the Beltway — it’ll be made when the president signs a health care reform bill that reflects so much of what Max Baucus is getting done right now.—

Still, Finance Democrats at times have grown frustrated with Baucus’ deliberate style and dogged pursuit of a bipartisan health care bill. Baucus worked for months to try to fashion a bill that could win GOP support. But in the end, after numerous pushed deadlines, the Finance chairman pressed ahead with the best product that he believed could come up with — and in so doing, he didn’t make many Senators happy.

[IMGCAP(1)]And yet there remains an admiration of the commitment that Baucus has made to the reform effort over the past year and a half, and a recognition that any bill that clears the Senate floor is likely to have his imprint.

“I think he’s been essential to getting us where we are,— added Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who spent months at Baucus’ side as a participant in the bipartisan gang of six health care negotiations. “If we’re able to get this markup completed and get a bill to the floor, he’ll deserve substantial credit.—

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who is seeking to rewrite parts of the bill that she believes will harm lower- and middle-class Americans, was more measured.

“He deserves tremendous accolades for perseverance and patience, and I’ve never seen anybody more focused in trying to find the right strategy to get things done,— she said. “I think all of us are held accountable for what we do. that’s why we’re working so hard on it. I think he has done everything humanly possible to get this done and he will continue to.—

The road to the finish line — if Baucus can manage to cross it — is fraught with obstacles, some of which have already tripped him up.

Even now that the markup on his health care proposal has finally begun, Baucus faces a practical and political minefield as he balances trying to mitigate the backlash from Democratic liberals while shoring up support from centrists.

Baucus’ supporters point out that the chairman is trying to preserve his bill in committee, not just to get GOP votes but also to firm up votes among Democratic moderates. While liberals are upset about the measure’s lack of a public insurance option, centrists, who have been deeply skeptical or downright opposed to creating the public insurance option for which the president and Congressional leaders have called, have warmed to Baucus’ proposal to create a network of nonprofit health insurance cooperatives.

A third way, proposed by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), that creates a public option as a fallback if private insurers cannot reduce costs and increase coverage has also gained currency with Senate centrists.

The Finance chairman has also been trying to run a markup that gives Republicans an opportunity to make their case, without allowing them to draw out the process unnecessarily.

“Whether or not he’s being unduly pressured by his leadership, he’s got to fairly run his committee. You could see his impatience coming to the surface today in a couple of situations,— Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said. “It’s not easy, but a good chairman will control his own emotions and give everyone the opportunity that they are entitled to.—

In addition to giving committee Republicans a chance to vent, Baucus is also trying to secure Snowe’s vote, considering she is the only GOP Senator likely to support the measure. With Snowe’s backing, Baucus would be able claim bipartisanship and perhaps firm up the votes of wavering Democratic centrists.

“If he reports a bill out with bipartisan support, it’ll be a clear indication that the package he’s put together has the best chance of success in getting 60 votes or more on the Senate floor,— said another senior Senate Democratic aide, referencing the number of votes needed to beat back a filibuster.

But Baucus may have alienated Snowe on Wednesday by pushing to defeat an amendment by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) to postpone a final committee vote on the health measure until an official cost estimate was in hand. A visibly agitated Snowe railed against Democrats, saying a complete Congressional Budget Office score was vital before the bill moves on to the floor.

“In the world we live in, numbers matter,— Snowe said later. “I was actually surprised this morning … that this would not have been a position that would have been embraced by the entire committee with respect to being fiscally responsible.—

Despite the challenges, several Democrats cautioned that Baucus has seemed to prevail in the past in the face of controversy. “This is a man who ran 42 miles of a 50-mile race with a gash that required eight stitches in his head,— said one Democratic lobbyist familiar with the Montana Democrat’s career. “He will find a way to get this off the floor with 60 votes.—

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