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New Test for Old Alliance

Douglas Graham/Roll Call
The relationship between Finance Chairman Max Baucus (center) and ranking member Chuck Grassley is viewed by many as the linchpin to any possible bipartisan health care deal.

When asked whether the health care debate was yet another example of Baucus giving too much policy ground to Republicans, Senate Finance Subcommittee on Health Care Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said, “There’s a bit of that here. You can’t argue against trying to get 60 votes, but you can argue against trying to get 60 votes if it begins to lose you votes that you might otherwise have gotten” from Democrats.

Rockefeller and other Democrats have bristled at being excluded from the bipartisan Finance talks, as well as at the policy proscriptions the group appears to be considering. Rockefeller has been most outspoken about the potential pitfalls of not creating a public insurance option, the preference of most Democrats, including President Barack Obama. The Baucus-Grassley group has instead been contemplating having a government-sponsored, nonprofit health care cooperative that would compete with private insurers.

Of course, suspicions run high on the Republican side as well. As one senior GOP aide put it: “There’s a palatable concern amongst the Conference because of Grassley’s track record of putting them in tough positions.”

Indeed, many Republicans see the co-op model as just another way of opening the door to government-controlled health care.

“Obviously, there’s a concern that something might be agreed upon that hasn’t been run by the Conference and leadership,” said one Republican Senator. That’s why, this Senator said, Republican leaders have cautioned Grassley, “Please, don’t make any deals without at least talking with” the Conference.

However, Republicans have been comforted by the fact that on health care, Baucus and Grassley are not in the room alone, as they have been on previous occasions.

“I think having other people there — it’s unlikely that Chuck goes alone on this,” said the Republican Senator. “The group dynamic — it’s helpful to him and it’s probably helpful to us, too.”

Plus, the senior Senate GOP aide said the enormity of reconfiguring one-sixth of the economy does not appear to be lost on Grassley, who is up for a sixth term next year.

“The bottom line is the stakes have never been bigger,” the aide said. “I think we’re seeing encouraging signs that [Grassley’s] not going to go rogue.”

Still, GOP leaders have attempted to sow doubts in Grassley’s mind by reminding him repeatedly of his experience with Baucus on the children’s health insurance bill they both championed in 2008. Though the Senate had a veto-proof majority for the measure, the House sustained then-President George W. Bush’s rejection of the measure.

Looking to push the same measure again in 2009, Grassley found that Democrats were more interested in passing a different children’s health insurance measure, and he and many other Republicans ended up walking away from the bill that was enacted.

Grassley acknowledged the reminders he’s been getting from his leadership as the health care talks proceed but said he knows that the State Children’s Health Insurance Program situation had nothing to do with Baucus’ commitment to their original agreement.

GOP leaders have “made that point, and they made it very clear,” Grassley said. “But if I thought it was Baucus’ fault that SCHIP didn’t work out, then I’d blame him.”

He added, “I blame people above him.”

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