Barack Obama received 67 million votes in the last election. Senator Max Baucus of Montana received 349,000 votes when he ran for re-election last year. His Republican counterpart on the Senate Finance Committee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, got just over a million votes when he last ran in ’04.
So how, exactly, was Obama’s landslide victory a mandate for Baucus and Grassley to hijack the president’s agenda? When it comes to healthcare reform, trusting Baucus was the first mistake Obama made. Allowing Baucus to cede so much authority to Grassley is the second.
When Baucus became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee after Democrats recaptured Congress, many Democrats were justifiably worried. After all, Baucus helped shepherd through Congress two of President Bush’s signature initiatives, his tax cuts and Medicare privatization plan. He received a ton of money from corporate lobbyists, many of whom were former staffers of his. In a Nation profile in early ’07, I dubbed him "K Street’s Favorite Democrat."
Baucus’ staff went to great lengths to convince me that he really was a progressive at heart. Just look at how he fought Bush’s privatization of Social Security, even when the president came to Montana! Ok, but one relatively modesty stand does not erase a career of compromise and capitulation. Matt Yglesias came up with a fitting nickname for the Montana Senator: Bad Max.
Yet as Democrats solidified their control of Congress and Obama cruised to the White House, Baucus tried to convince his Democratic colleagues that they had nothing to worry about with him at the helm of such an important committee with jurisdiction over crucial financial matters. He endorsed Obama during the primary and Obama tapped Baucus’ top aide, Jim Messina, as his chief of staff for the general election and deputy chief of staff in the White House. The hiring of Messina should’ve set off alarm bells among progressives, signaling that Baucus now had an influential booster in the president’s inner circle.
"Max Baucus could prove a progressive legislative giant," Ezra Klein wrote just after the election. "Or he could be Bad Max." The latter, unfortunately, is what we’ve seen of late. Was "Good Max" always a facade?
When it came time to assemble a healthcare bill, Baucus gathered behind closed doors with the so-called "gang of six"–Democrats Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Republicans Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Grassley. As Yglesias pointed out, these six senators represents 2.74 percent of the US population, or 1/5 of California. Yet they quickly became the most influential group in the Congress. In a secret, backroom process, they disregarded the president’s preference for a public option and likely killed the best chance we had for substantive healthcare reform that would cover all Americans, lower costs and give people a real choice of plans.
In a superfluous attempt to appear "bipartisan," Baucus once again bent over backwards to appease Grassley (the two have a long history and even when Baucus is holding the hearings it’s difficult to tell who’s really running the committee) even as Grassley falsely railed that Obama wanted to pull the plug on granny and made it clear, yesterday, that he has no intention of voting for whatever bill he is currently helping to draft. Ezra summarized the gist of Grassley’s appearance on MSNBC yesterday:
He railed against "government-run health care" and the "Pelosi health-care bill." He talked about bureaucrats and exploding deficits. He sounded like a House conservative giving a stump speech. Grassley presumably leaves his stemwinders behind when he’s with the Gang of Six. But this was not a comforting sign. This was not a unifying performance.
Second, Chuck Todd asked Grassley whether he’d vote for the bill if it was a good piece of policy that he’d crafted but that couldn’t attract more than a handful of Republican votes. "Certainly not," replied Grassley. Todd tried again, clarifying that this was legislation Grassley liked, and thought would move the ball forward, but was getting bogged down due to partisanship. Grassley held firm. If a good bill cannot attract Republican support, then it is not a good bill, he argued.
Grassley, in other words, is working backward from the votes. If the Gang of Six reaches a compromise that the Senate Republicans don’t support, Grassley will abandon that compromise, regardless of the fact that he’s the guy who built it. The Gang of Six, in other words, falls apart if it can’t assure a vote of 76.
Grassley is clearly the one who’s off his meds. Democrats are rightly asking themselves what’s the point of a 60-vote, supposedly filibuster-proof Senate majority if a crazy Republican from Iowa can derail their agenda? How can Baucus rely on Grassley? And why did Obama ever trust Baucus? Does he still? The answers to these questions will help determine whether healthcare reform can be salvaged in Congress.