Longtime Capitol Hill observers say there’s no better evidence of the bitter partisan stalemate that has enveloped Congress than the posture of Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) during the past year’s health care debate.
Enzi’s voting record makes him one of the most conservative Senators (he voted along party lines 97 percent of the time last term). But he’s renowned for his bipartisan deal-making as ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — and during his tenure as chairman of the committee before the GOP lost control of Congress.
When as a member of the gang of six — the bipartisan group of Senators seeking to forge a compromise health care bill last summer — even Enzi couldn’t broker a deal, all sides knew the prognosis was not good for a bill that both political parties could agree on.
“I think he would have sat in that room and really worked until they found a solution,” said former Enzi staffer Kara Calvert, now a lobbyist for the Franklin Square Group. “That’s going to be a real challenge at this point because it has become so politically charged.”
Hill watchers and former staffers describe Enzi as a quiet leader, more workhorse than show horse. A former shoe salesman and the Senate’s only accountant by trade, he’s a meticulous, consummate legislator interested in making laws, not playing politics.
Enzi is famous for his “80 percent rule,” a mantra he carried from his fledgling political roots as two-term mayor of Gillette, Wyo., beginning in 1975, through the Wyoming state House and Senate, all the way to his time as HELP chairman from 2005 to 2007.
“People can agree on 80 percent of the issues 80 percent of the time and if they leave the other 20 percent out they can get a lot done,” Enzi says in a statement on his Web site.
The Senator declined to comment for this article. But the 80 percent philosophy led to a fruitful relationship with his Democratic counterpart on the HELP committee, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.). The pair was celebrated for its collegiality and productivity, turning dozens of bills into law, including an expansion of mental health insurance coverage and an overhaul of the law governing federal aid for higher education.
Even when Enzi handed the chairmanship over to Kennedy in 2007, the two remained industrious, said longtime staffer Katherine McGuire, who worked for Enzi from the time he entered the Senate in 1997 until 2007, including a stint as staff director of the HELP Committee.
“Kennedy and Enzi had an incredible meeting of the minds when it came to legislating,” said McGuire, now vice president of government relations for the Business Software Alliance. “Even though they did switch roles, the results by and large were still the same: a lot of legislation passed.”
In fact, after the switch, Kennedy reintroduced largely untouched a measure that Enzi originally sponsored: the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007, which expanded and reaffirmed several pieces of legislation regulating the FDA.
Even before taking the gavel on the HELP Committee, when he chaired the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Securities, Insurance and Investment, Enzi worked across the aisle on important legislation. Though Enzi’s name would never be attached to the law, then-Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) tapped Enzi’s accounting know-how to write the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which set new federal accounting and corporate governance standards for publicly traded companies.
Enzi now applies the same accounting skills to the Finance and Budget committees, and, as a former small-business owner, he also sits on the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.
McGuire said Enzi is driven by a simple, three-pronged mission statement that he relates during every weekly staff meeting: “Do what’s right, do your best, and treat others as they want be treated.” She added that he’s also known for another folksy Wyoming proverb: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
So to hear Enzi boast of blocking legislation is rare and emblematic of the Senate logjam on health care reform. “If I hadn’t been a part of the debate, you would already have universal health care,” Enzi said last week, according to a report in the Casper Star-Tribune.
Advocates of health care reform such as Ralph Neas, who heads the National Coalition on Health Care, say Enzi has been handcuffed by Republican leadership and a far-right constituency.
“He has been in a uniquely qualified position to be a constructive force on behalf of health care reform,” Neas said. “He would probably be part of a contingent that would attempt to bridge the divide to get a mixture of marketplace solutions along with the Democratic approach.”
Critics of the Democratic health care reform bill such as Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, said he’d just as soon see Enzi shirk bipartisanship altogether on the bill.
“We were a bit concerned. We didn’t know what the outcome of something like [the Gang of Six] would be, considering the people he was talking with,” Phillips said. “You can’t find common ground when you start from something this liberal.”
Still, Stephen Northrup, Enzi’s former health policy director and now a lobbyist at the Podesta Group, said Enzi would probably be on board with incremental reform — a position Northrup expects Enzi to bring to President Barack Obama’s bipartisan health care summit with Members of Congress this week.”He truly believes the system is in need of reform,” Northrup said. “I suspect he’d like to see the president set that bill aside and start the discussions over to see whether there’s some pieces of health care reform where there can be agreement between the two parties.”
Still, all sides say finding broad support on health care reform may be a long shot. On other matters still to come before the HELP Committee, however, such as prescription drug and medical device issues or No Child Left Behind, HELP Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has a better shot at a constructive working relationship with Enzi, observers say.
“There’s certainly mutual respect and appreciation for each others’ skills as legislators,” Northrup said. “If Sen. Harkin takes the approach of looking for areas he and Sen. Enzi can work together, he’ll find them. “There’s usually some place where one can find common ground with Sen. Enzi.”