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Baucus: The Man in the Middle

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) had hoped to be the champion of bipartisanship when it came to health care, and he moved heaven and earth to try to achieve it. But as deadlines set by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and President Barack Obama for hammering out reform legislation passed unheeded and his fellow Democrats became more and more convinced that he was on a fool’s errand, he finally had to give up on his gang of six bipartisan talks and produce a bill on his own.

Though bipartisanship eluded him, Baucus set the bar for keeping a health care bill from breaking the bank, and his goal of crafting a bill that costs $900 billion or less was embraced by Obama during a joint session of Congress in September. In the end, the Congressional Budget Office scored Baucus’ bill at $829 billion and projected an $81 billion reduction in the deficit over 10 years while eventually insuring 94 percent of the American people. The bill garnered the first Republican vote of the entire health care debate, when Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) supported it in committee.

Baucus did take a hit from liberal colleagues and interest groups for pursuing the creation of nonprofit health insurance cooperatives over the public insurance option. And even though he passed a bill out of committee with co-ops, the idea never caught fire with Democrats or Republicans and was quickly dropped at the leadership level in favor of Sen. Charles Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) public option with a state opt-out.

Still, Baucus’ legacy — if a bill is enacted — will be in creating the bones of a centrist bill that garnered a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. A big part of that will be the compromises that he helped craft on how to pay for the bill, including billions of dollars in fees on insurance industry players and controversial cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. And armed with data showing that taxing “Cadillac— plans would push the price of health care down, he also stood his ground against organized labor on a plan to tax high-cost insurance plans that many unions have taken recently in lieu of salary increases.

As Senate leaders work behind the scenes to craft a final bill, Baucus remains a key player in the room. He’s been determined all along to see some kind of health care bill through, and his flexibility and willingness to deal have served him well throughout the entire process.

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