Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid prefers practicing gentle persuasion to hardball politics when it comes to prompting his fellow Democratic Senators to get behind healthcare reform. But even he has his limits.
On Tuesday, Reid told Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who is heading an effort to create a bipartisan solution on healthcare, that reform legislation needs to include a public, government-supported option to compete with private insurers. Reid reportedly indicated to Baucus that a bill without a public option might gain a few GOP votes, but would lose a lot more Democratic ones -- and so Baucus should stop trying to win over Republicans.
But on Wednesday, Baucus ignored Reid's admonitions. He continued his push to create a bipartisan solution with Republicans, even if that means sacrificing the public option that Democrats and a large majority of Americans support. Baucus seemed to suggest yet again that bipartisanship is as important, it not more so, than the merits of any proposed healthcare plan. “Everything’s on the table," Baucus said. "By far the better approach is a bipartisan approach to get this moving.”
Some Democrats are worried that Baucus is trying to force them into a corner by creating a healthcare proposal that might have Republican support but would be inferior policy-wise. Democratic sources told Roll Call that "Baucus’ calculation ... is that Democratic leaders and President Barack Obama would be hard-pressed to ignore any measure that attracts bipartisan support if the Finance chairman is actually able to get it done."
Throughout his career, Baucus has had a tendency to play for the middle ground in politics. In 1993, he opposed an employer mandate that helped to derail Bill Clinton's healthcare reform push.
Baucus had advocated taxing some employer-provided health benefits as a way to offset the cost of any healthcare plan, but that idea has faced sharp criticism from Democrats who think the senator is trying way too hard to win the support of Republicans like Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who seem more determined to oppose a public option than to come up with a solution of their own.
Baucus' continued focus on bipartisanship comes as at least one centrist Democratic senator is beginning to soften her opposition to a public plan. In a piece in Wednesday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. wrote, "Health care reform must build upon what works and improve inefficiencies. Individuals should be able to choose from a range of quality health insurance plans. Options should include private plans as well as a quality, affordable public plan or non-profit plan that can accomplish the same goals as those of a public plan." Lincoln had not come as close to supporting a public option in the past but has been under pressure from liberal advocacy groups to change her position on the issue recently.
Wednesday, Reid also seemed to backtrack on his earlier prodding of Baucus. Reid sought to assuage Republicans worried that healthcare legislation would be rushed through the Senate and assured them that Democrats still want to work with them to come up with a solution.