Wyden Brings On Health Headaches

Posted October 6, 2009 at 6:32pm

Sen. Ron Wyden is not on Senate Democratic leaders’ list of favorites these days.

The Oregon Democrat surprised Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Democratic leaders last week with harsh criticism about the committee bill, as well as with his last-minute push for an amendment that they contend would tear at the fabric of their health care reform plan.

And now Democratic leaders resent having to scramble to secure Wyden’s support in advance of a final committee vote on the Baucus bill later this week or next.

“He could have pushed harder for his ideas earlier in the process rather than waiting until the end of the markup to express his concerns,— one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Wyden was coy Tuesday when asked whether he was aware of his leadership’s concerns about him.

“I’ve just been talking to them how to best work through the process to improve the bill, which should fairly address any concerns about holding insurance companies accountable and containing costs and promoting competition,— said Wyden, a Finance member. “The conversations have been very positive.—

But Wyden indicated that he is not taking his ball and going home no matter the outcome in committee.

“I’m just going to keep working through the process,— he said. “There are going to be a lot of opportunities to have an influence on the debate, and this is the key stage going into the Finance Committee. And then, of course, there are other stages.—

Though some see Wyden as a nuisance who has unnecessarily occupied the White House and Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) valuable time, many said he has not been afforded the courtesy that he deserved during the Finance Committee process, given his long-standing push to overhaul the health care system.

“Ron clearly staked out a position on health care a long, long time ago,— one Democratic Senator said. “So no one should be surprised that Ron isn’t yet on board.—

Indeed, Wyden has for years pursued a bipartisan health care reform bill that would dismantle the employer-based system of providing health insurance and encourage individuals to buy their insurance on the open market. But Democratic leaders and the White House dismissed his measure early on as too radical an approach.

That dismissal, some say, is at the root of the scramble to shore up his vote in Finance.

“I think that, to some extent, what is playing out is sour grapes that there is a big health care overhaul happening and it doesn’t incorporate the ideas in his bill,— one Senate Democratic aide said.

But Wyden spokeswoman Jennifer Hoelzer said the notion that Wyden is bitter “is just silly.— She added: “It’s ridiculous to think that Sen. Wyden is concerned with anything more than making this the best bill possible. … He never mentioned his bill even once in the committee process.—

Still, Wyden has also refused to say how he will vote in committee, much to the consternation of Democratic leaders who are looking for a solid vote of support coming out of the Finance panel.

The tension between Wyden and Baucus came to a head after 1 a.m. Thursday as Finance was bringing its markup to a close.

Wyden pressed hard to get a vote on his “free choice— amendment to allow any consumer — including those who receive health insurance through their employer — to buy policies through an insurance exchange. The current bill would prevent those who have affordable employer-provided insurance and large businesses from participating in the exchange because, supporters say, otherwise the bill might undermine the employer-based system.

Even though Wyden did not have the votes to prevail, he found himself in a testy back-and-forth with Baucus, who argued that Wyden did not have a valid cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office. Baucus ruled the Wyden amendment out of order for that reason, denying him a vote.

However, Hoelzer said the Wyden amendment had actually been scored by the CBO early in the markup process and was found to not only save money, but also have no effect on the employer-based system.

The Senate Democratic aide said Baucus treated Wyden shabbily during the committee markup by ruling his amendment out of order.

“He hasn’t been thrown so much as a bone during the committee proceedings,— the aide said. “He’s just looking for a platform to sound off on one of his ideas — even if it’s not viable — and he didn’t even get that chance.—

Wyden has also attempted to do an end-run around Baucus by aggressively lobbying Reid’s office for his priorities. He met with Reid or his staff every day last week. He also has had multiple meetings with Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag.

But Wyden didn’t help his cause last week when he gave a speech to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center in which he disparaged Baucus’ bill as having little to no consumer choice or competition. He added that the bill would “throw hundreds of billions of dollars of additional money into a broken system.—

A Democratic Senator indicated that Wyden’s concerns could be emblematic of the problems Baucus and Reid may encounter in the Democratic Conference as a whole.

“There shouldn’t be an expectation that everybody sing the same song when not everyone has seen the sheet music yet,— the Senator said. “I think people are going to be surprised by the amendments that are offered [on the floor]. Not everybody is going to belly up the bar and say, ‘Good job, Max. Good job, Harry.’—

Indeed, Wyden may be the least of Baucus’ and Reid’s troubles these days. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is also threatening to vote against the Finance package in committee, Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R-Maine) support remains elusive, and a key moderate, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), is refusing to commit to anything.

As for Wyden, Democrats said he is likely to come out somewhat on top given the situation.

One Senate Democratic aide said Wyden is a strategic player and is likely angling for promises of votes on his priorities when the measure hits the Senate floor. “He usually apprises the chairman of his position and gives leaders a chance to appease him,— the aide said.

The aide added, “Ron comes off as a bit of a fanatic because he fanatically believes what he believes.—