Enzi Sets a High Bar for Bipartisan Talks

Posted August 22, 2009 at 7:00am

Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), a key GOP health care negotiator, probably didn’t intend to signal that Democrats and Republicans will ultimately fail to compromise on a comprehensive reform bill when Congress resumes its work after the August recess.

But in a lengthy interview conducted with Enzi this week via e-mail, the Finance Committee negotiator and ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel indicated his support for health care reform is predicated partly on its ability to garner the support of 75 to 80 Senators. That condition is shared by fellow Finance negotiator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the panel’s ranking member.

Given the wide philosophical and political chasm dividing the two parties, the prospect of crafting a bill that can attract nearly all 60 Senate Democrats and at least 25 Republicans is doubtful — and increasingly so.

“I hope that reports that the White House is pursuing a go-it-alone strategy are incorrect, because we need to get a bill that 75 or 80 Senators can support,— Enzi said Thursday in a written response to questions posed by Roll Call.

“Using reconciliation to pass health care reform would result in [a] far left, liberal bill that would drive up costs, deny patients access to their doctors and generally make health care in this country worse,— he continued. “If Congress cuts corners, rushes the process, and shuts out good ideas, we’ll end up with a failed project that will waste a lot of time and money.—

Enzi is one of six Finance Committee negotiators attempting to reach consensus on a health care bill. The group, which has been in talks since June, met Thursday evening via teleconference in what amounted to its first negotiating session since Aug. 6, the day before the Senate adjourned for recess.

Republican Senators have generally lauded Enzi’s work as a Finance negotiator, although most in the minority sent strong signals before the August break that they doubted the talks would produce a bill that could earn wide GOP support.

“Enzi has been very important for both sides of the negotiations. He provides the … group with a higher level of credibility since it isn’t just the Baucus-Grassley tandem and Sen. [Olympia] Snowe (R-Maine),— a senior Republican Senate aide said. “On our side of things, he has kept the entire Conference in the loop on the discussions.—

Enzi complained in several previous interviews that the health care reform bill passed by the HELP Committee last month on a party-line vote was a partisan exercise that will do nothing to lower health insurance costs or improve the delivery and quality of care. Democrats have argued otherwise, noting the acceptance of several Republican amendments.

But Enzi has had much kinder words for Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and his effort to produce a consensus bill through the bipartisan, group of six. However, that hasn’t made him any more willing to support a bill he doesn’t like, or lend the seal of bipartisanship to legislation that fails to earn broad approval from the Republican Conference.

“Under Senator Baucus’ leadership, we’ve had a good, open process in the Finance Committee so far, and I’ve appreciated that. My goal has always been to get a bill that 75 or 80 Senators can support,— Enzi said.

“If we have broad support in Congress, the American people will believe in what we’re doing and the bill will succeed. If Democrats try to shut out Republicans and moderate Democrats and jam something through Congress, the plan will fail because the American people won’t have confidence in it.—

Baucus has been under pressure from the White House and Senate Democratic leaders to wrap up the Finance Committee negotiations and mark up a health care bill so that the process toward floor passage can move forward. In the Senate, the process calls for the HELP bill to be merged with the forthcoming legislation from Finance.

The group of six negotiators include Baucus, Enzi, Grassley, Snowe and Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.).

Like Grassley — and to a degree, Conrad and Snowe — Enzi is in no mood to be rushed. He is refusing to abide by Baucus’ Sept. 15 deadline for the negotiations to bear fruit or be abandoned for partisan, Democratic options for moving a bill out of the committee.

And, based on his meetings with constituents in Wyoming during the recess, Enzi sees no reason to change his long-held opposition to a timeline for approving a health care reform bill. Nor, Enzi said, has he been urged by voters in his sparsely populated, conservative-leaning state to compromise on policy.

“They tell me they don’t want the federal government making their health care decisions for them. Wyoming people are independent. I believe the people not only in my state, but those across the country are getting the same message out to their members of Congress and the administration,— Enzi said. “People are glad I’m working on it and have faith I will make sure it’s done right — meaning cutting the cost of health care, helping them keep the insurance they have, and being sure any programs are paid for and not out of Medicare money.—

“Health care dominates the discussions,— he added. “People want to know what is going on. They know this is serious, that it will affect them and their families.—

Among the most controversial topics raised at several spirited town hall meetings with Members across the country is end-of-life counseling.

Democrats have accused Republicans of purposely misleading constituents to believe that the health care bill passed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee would create a government panel, with bureaucrats determining whether seniors received life-saving treatment.

But Republicans say seniors are rightly concerned, as the House legislation would create cost-savings incentives built around encouraging doctors to discuss with elderly patients whether undergoing a life-saving procedure makes financial sense.

Enzi declined to comment directly when asked his opinion of the Democrats’ charges and the policy contained in the House bill. But he did not sidestep the issue completely, indicating he is sympathetic with the concerns many seniors — and conservatives and independents — have expressed about legislation approved by various House and Senate committees.

“The real concern people should have is with the comparative effectiveness [of the] provisions of the HELP Committee and House bills, which would give Washington bureaucrats the power to decide literally whether patients would live or die by rationing newer, more expensive therapies,— Enzi said.

“Republicans on [HELP] offered several amendments to protect patients and prevent this type of government control and rationing, but Democrats defeated them. This makes me concerned — and millions of Americans share my concern — that they intend to use the comparative effectiveness provisions in the bill to ration care like they do in Great Britain.—

Enzi joined the Finance negotiations in earnest in mid July, following the markup of the HELP bill.

Even prior to the HELP markup, he expressed his belief that health care needs to be reformed and that compromise with the Democrats is possible.

But the Finance negotiations have bogged down over predictable disagreements regarding the government’s role in health care, the cost of the overhaul and how to pay for it. In fact, the talks nearly deteriorated completely the last week of July.

Some Democrats blame Enzi and Grassley. These Democrats argue that the two Senators entered the bipartisan Finance negotiations in good faith fully intending to push for an honest compromise, before buckling to political pressure from fellow Republicans bent on derailing health care reform as a means to defeat President Barack Obama.

“Enzi was very involved and very constructive until right before the break. Then he got cold feet and lost his willingness to stand up to leadership,— said one Democratic lobbyist familiar with the talks. “I think after this month he will bow out.—

Grassley this week responded to similar charges by releasing a statement affirming his support for the bipartisan Finance talks.

And Enzi, not known for being overly political and having just won a third term last year, said in the interview that he is open to compromise on the divisive issue of whether the government should implement a public insurance option as a part of health care reform.

Enzi is adamantly opposed to the public insurance option. But he does support the creation of a nonprofit, medical co-operative, a proposal first floated by Conrad, the Senate Budget chairman — on the condition that it is not a co-op in name only.

“You can design a co-op to be almost identical to a government-run plan, or you can design a co-op to prevent government control and ensure healthy competition,— Enzi said. “I’m committed to working with my colleagues to design a coop plan that keeps out government interference and works like small business health plans, where consumers could band together to seek better rates and coverage from health insurance companies.—