The choice of Paul Kirk (D) to temporarily fill the vacant Senate seat in Massachusetts was a first-rate move by Gov. Deval Patrick (D). Kirk has done a first-rate, bipartisan job with Frank Fahrenkopf on the Commission on Presidential Debates, and he did a terrific job with the Profile in Courage awards, especially the gutsy choice of Gerald Ford for his pardon of Richard Nixon. Kirk is smart, savvy, civil and seasoned, just what one would want for a temporary appointment.
Kirk arrives just in time for the pivotal stages of health reform. The Senate Finance Committee remains the central forum. For all the criticism Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has taken for his draft bill, it is the template for the likely reform plan, its structure all but endorsed by President Barack Obama in his speech to the joint session. The basic components universal mandated coverage, subsidies for poorer Americans, health insurance exchanges to have competitive, regulated plans that offer minimum plans and others, a requirement that most employers subsidize coverage even if they dont offer insurance to their workers are sound building blocks, within a reasonably fiscally disciplined frame.
That basic structure has a lot in common with the Massachusetts health plan call it nephew of Romneycare. The Baucus plan has even more in common with the alternative offered in 1994 by Republican Sen. John Chafee (R.I.) call it son of Chafee.
So the fact that the basic template of reform could pass for a moderate Republican alternative, and has not a single Republican supporter, says all we need to know about the dysfunction in the political system, and especially in the minority party. Well, maybe not all we need to know. Take the juxtaposition of statements made over the past month by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), as pointed out by one of the sharpest analysts we have of the health care reform debate, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post:
Quote one: As recently as a month ago, Chuck Grassley ... announced that the way to get universal coverage is through an individual mandate. He told Nightly Business report, Thats individual responsibility, and even Republicans believe in individual responsibility. Earlier this year, Grassley told Fox News that there wasnt anything wrong with mandates, even if some may view them as an infringement upon individual freedom.
Quote two: Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the Finance Committees senior Republican, said the mandate is among the reasons that he couldnt support the bill despite months of negotiations with Mr. Baucus. Individuals should maintain their freedom to chose health-care coverage, or not, he said.
Did Grassley have a sudden conversion on the subject? Of course not. Under severe pressure from his leaders, and facing the threat of a well-financed Club for Growth challenge from the right in a primary, Grassley is grasping for reasons to oppose a bill into which he had tremendous input and that, under normal circumstances, he would be supporting.