Senate Democrats are increasingly frustrated by the secrecy and duration of Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) bipartisan talks on health care reform, with some saying it could undermine Democratic support for the bill.
Democrats both on and off the Finance Committee said the briefings they get about the six negotiators progress are too vague. Plus, they say, without a bill in hand, they cannot defend or sell the package to a wary media and public.
At some point, [Baucus is] going to have to worry about getting Democratic votes, said one Democratic Senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity. If they think that well take whatever it is that comes out because we want to get something passed, theyre wrong.
Another Democratic Senator said the updates Democrats are getting from Baucus contain few specifics on the policy changes being explored by his bipartisan group, which also includes Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.).
The report that we get is the same one we get week after week after week: Were close. Were close. Were close, said the Democratic Senator.
This isnt the first time Baucus has been the subject of his colleagues ire. Many Democrats are still steaming over Baucus willingness to align with the Bush administration on controversial tax cuts and a sweeping Medicare prescription drug bill. However, he did gain back some credibility with fellow Democrats when he took a lead roll in killing Bushs Social Security proposals.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who sits on Finance, similarly acknowledged that the briefings for committee members during the current health care talks have not been very detailed. However, she said she is not bothered by it, because she understands the need for some secrecy.
Its tough to move the ball down the field in [Finance Democrat] meetings, she said. Baucus is trying the best way he can to move the ball down the field.
Lincoln added, Ive been weighing in on the things Im most concerned about.
Another Finance member, Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), however, insisted he is satisfied with his communications with Baucus, saying: I talk to Sen. Baucus every day. Hes gone out of his way to be consultative.
Baucus, on his way into another closed-door session Wednesday evening, said he has had several conversations with Democratic Senators to inform them of the progress of the talks. Baucus acknowledged there has been some concern but said most of his conversations with Members have been positive, and he stressed he will brief his caucus in detail once an agreement has been reached.
There will be an opportunity for Senators to weigh in as they should, Baucus told reporters. I really havent heard grumbling; Ive heard a little concern, asking questions Max, what about this, what about that, can we add this, can we add that? Im sure theres a little angst, because whenever youre not in the room youre going to wonder whats going on. But Ive done my best to reassure.