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Egos on Deck in Health Care Fix

“Sen. Baucus and Sen. Kennedy have been very explicit, publicly and privately, in their intention to work closely together on health care reform,” Guthrie said. “At the Senators’ direction, there is and will continue to be an enormous amount of cooperation and discussion among Finance and HELP staff behind the scenes on health reform. Americans need a new health system now, and Sen. Baucus has his eye on the ball, not on the turf.”

However, Baucus has raised some eyebrows by getting out in front of Kennedy in releasing an outline of his proposal last week. “Most people are shaking their heads, saying what is Baucus doing putting out a plan before Kennedy,” one well-placed Senate Democratic source said. “It was a bizarre move by Baucus.”

For his part, however, Kennedy publicly praised the move. “Senator Baucus’ white paper is a major contribution to the debate on health reform,” Kennedy said in a statement. “It provides an important analysis of the urgent need for significant improvements in our health care system, and thoughtful recommendations for reform.”

One former Senate Democratic staffer who knows the players said Baucus was not likely trying to big foot Kennedy as much as he was trying to get out in front of Obama — in part to make sure that Congress defines the debate and not the White House. The fact that the Clinton White House sent up its mammoth bill still produces some consternation among Congressional Democrats, who said they were presented with an all-or-nothing proposition from the administration.

“Everyone wants to jump ahead of [Obama],” the former staffer said. “They’re trying to jump out there with plans so he doesn’t have to offer his own plan.”

Wyden said Baucus did the right thing by moving quickly, and the former aide said he believes the Obama administration will not fall into the same traps as the Clinton White House did.

“An Obama administration is going to give a broader berth to the Congress,” Wyden said. “You’re not going to see them send a 1,360-page bill to Capitol Hill.”

Baucus also has a troubled history with Daschle. As Majority Leader in 2001 and 2002, Daschle often cut Baucus out of negotiations on legislation under the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, primarily because Daschle did not trust Baucus’ faithfulness to Democratic wants.

But Guthrie said the two men have had several “very good conversations recently.”

Plus, any Baucus-Daschle tensions could be smoothed easily from within the White House, given former Baucus top aide Jim Messina will be serving as Obama’s deputy chief of staff.

Despite his health problems, Kennedy has been working the issue hard since returning to Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago, specifically to begin drafting health care reform legislation. And Senators and aides said that barring a decline in his health, Kennedy will certainly drive the debate in the Senate.

“The major player here is going to Sen. Kennedy and the [HELP] committee,” one senior Senate Democratic source said. “I expect that beginning in January, if his health holds, he’ll be taking ownership of this.”

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