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Senate Egos to Do Battle

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Sens. Max Baucus (left), Tom Harkin and Chris Dodd, the leading Democrats on health care reform, have different priorities and will have to work together to get a final bill through the Senate.

Newly minted Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is poised to assert himself in the health care debate and work aggressively to protect liberal reform goals, setting up a possible Senate showdown with Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and leading moderate Democrats.

Harkin and Baucus have a history of collaborating on legislation, particularly on the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, where they both sit. But the duo has also clashed since Baucus often pushes a centrist agenda while Harkin advocates liberal priorities.

Take for instance this week’s battle over whether to include a public insurance option in a health care reform bill. Just as Baucus worked to defeat the proposal in the Finance health care markup, arguing it would never pass the Senate, Harkin vowed it would be a part of any final Senate bill.

“As I’ve said before, four of five committees have a public option; one doesn’t,” Harkin said Wednesday, in reference to Baucus’ Finance Committee bill. “So, I think the vast majority of people want a public option. And, we’ll have a public option.”

Pressed further on how hard he is willing to fight Baucus and other opponents of the public insurance option, Harkin was emphatic, saying a reform bill would land on President Barack Obama’s desk before Christmas Day “and that bill will have a public option.”

Baucus on Wednesday declined to directly address Harkin’s assertion. But he reiterated that he does not believe a bill with a public insurance option can pass the Senate. Baucus’ Finance bill includes a proposal to create a nonprofit medical cooperative, the brainchild of moderate Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.), while the HELP measure contains a public insurance option.

“I think it’s important that the bill that’s on the floor gets 60 votes,” Baucus said.

One Democratic source argued that the Finance bill more closely aligns with Obama’s vision for a health care package. Unlike Baucus’ plan, the bill passed by HELP along party lines in July is not deficit-neutral, an Obama priority.

“This is about protecting the president’s vision,” this source said. “Everyone, including the White House, knows the Finance bill is the only bill that’s paid for and can pass. ... The White House wants a win, and using the bulk of the Baucus bill is the playbook to get the ‘W.’”

Obama has said he prefers a public insurance option to compete with private insurers, as the HELP bill provides and Harkin insists upon. But the president has said other options would be acceptable if they achieve the same results of affordability and coverage.

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