Grassley and the Grass Roots
Key Senator Surprised by Intensity of Emotion on Health Care
DES MOINES, Iowa — For Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), it was a recess to remember.
The ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee and a key Republican health care negotiator heard an earful from constituents during the monthlong summer break — literally. A series of what Grassley refers to as “town meetings— held throughout the state was more heavily attended than normal, to say the least. The events revolved primarily around health care reform, and in some cases were so jam-packed they had to be moved outside to accommodate the crowds.
The gatherings clearly affected Grassley, who commented after his first four town hall meetings concluded on Aug. 12 that he was surprised by their intensity and the extent to which his constituents had turned against the idea of health care reform as a default position. Grassley said whether other Members of Congress had similar experiences could determine the fate of the health care reform effort moving forward.
“I think the town meetings in Iowa have made considerable impact,— Grassley said last week. “But I don’t know about 434 other Congressional districts — how it’s working out in those districts — and that’s in the House. And, [in] another 49 states, I’m not sure how it’s worked out. But I think that the reality of democracy at work is coming home as I would measure by this: [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.] in the House of Representatives wanted to have a bill through the House by August the 1st, and [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] was pushing hard to get a bill out of the Senate Finance Committee by the first part of August.—
“And now,— Grassley continued, “at least in the House of Representatives, Pelosi is saying that a bill probably won’t come up until sometime in October. So it seems to me there’s been a lot of rethinking of strategy.—
Grassley was speaking to a conference call of Iowa reporters, who were trying to discern how the town hall meetings would color the Senator’s approach to health care reform this fall, when the epic legislative battle is expected to reach a tipping point. Grassley, running for a sixth term in 2010, is part of a bipartisan gang of six Senate Finance Committee negotiators who have been trying to reach an agreement on health care reform.
The talks appeared to bog down just before the August recess began, and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.), the lead Democratic negotiator, has given the talks a deadline of Sept. 15 to bear fruit or be abandoned for other options. The negotiators are Baucus, Grassley, Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) and GOP Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).
Grassley has a long history of compromising with Democrats on contentious issues, at times to the bane of his fellow Republicans.
But the public’s rising opposition to a health care reform effort being driven by President Barack Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress — and its level of engagement in the issue as illustrated by turnout at Grassley’s town hall meetings — could discourage him from taking the kind of political risks that have characterized his five terms in the Senate.
Last month, Grassley’s town hall meetings attracted more than just a few hundred people here and there. On Aug. 12, about 2,000 of the Senator’s constituents braved sun-baked parks and hot and steamy community centers to hear the Senator speak and give him a piece of their mind at four events held in small farming communities across central Iowa.
Grassley, who held additional town hall meetings in other parts of the state later in the month, described the turnout via Twitter, and his observations are telling: “525 people at LeMars and 210 people at Cherokee. Lively but [civil]—; “250 people in Ida Grove town meeting. Not contentious. Every point of view. Not xtreme points—; “850 people at twn hall in sprt lake. Big crwd, good discussion and questions on hlth reform, cap and trade, bdgt deficit.—; “thnks to Sibley Kiwanis for hostng mtg. Abt 100 came out to tlk about issues. Hope othrs are hldg twn hall mtgs. Is democracy in action.—; “175people at George town hall. Lots of people spoke w great emotion unlike other events.—