With health care reform at the top of President-elect Barack Obamas agenda next year, Democrats who have salivated over the opportunity to revamp the nations health care system for decades are having to walk a fine line as they seek to work together on what promises to be a historic legislative endeavor.
Of course, playing nice doesnt necessarily come naturally to some of the key players in the debate, and many of them have a storied history of attempting to elbow others out of the way.
To begin with, Democrats are wary that the once-open rift between Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Tom Daschle and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) could rear its head again in the coming months.
Additionally, some Democrats have questioned Baucus decision to issue his principles for health care reform after Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) privately asked Members to refrain from proposing competing legislation.
Then theres Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Though she doesnt wield much seniority and likely could end up a nonissue if she becomes Obamas nominee for secretary of State, Clinton has a tremendous amount of credibility on health care. Earlier this fall, Kennedy rejected her attempt to secure a plum health care subcommittee chairmanship.
Last but not least, there is the issue of whether Kennedy will be able to manage all of the egos and jurisdictional disputes given his own uncertain health. Kennedy is battling brain cancer and underwent brain surgery earlier this year to minimize his tumor.
Still, most of the power players and their aides say everyone is mindful of the need to play nice to avoid the pitfalls of the Clinton administrations failed universal health care plan, when Democratic infighting allowed Republican opponents to define the issue and sink the proposal.
And so far, it appears that is working. Kennedy has been working closely with Baucus, as well as with fellow HELP Committee members to draft a bill. Baucus and Daschle have spoken several times over the past few weeks about health care issues. And Clinton has been tapped by Kennedy to spearhead a working group on insurance coverage as he seeks to craft legislation based on Obamas health care blueprint by the time Congress convenes in January for the 111th Congress.
Nobody wants to be the one who clearly makes this thing fall apart, said one Senate Democratic health care staffer.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who as a Finance Committee member has pursued his own bipartisan health care legislation for years, said he is optimistic about the ability of the major players to get along.
Im very encouraged by the cooperation that I am seeing with the chairs Chairman Baucus, Chairman Kennedy, with the incoming Obama administration, Wyden said. The reality is that the agreements on key issues are many more than there are potential differences in terms of strategy.
Wyden added that he had a long breakfast with Daschle, the former Senate Majority Leader, on Thursday to talk about health care.
Baucus spokeswoman Carol Guthrie said Baucus and Kennedy are working to avoid jurisdictional spats.