Senate committees are a little like feudal fiefdoms. The committee chairs don’t have absolute power over their turf, but they do get to dominate the agenda, and by extension they can skew the operations of the entire Senate. There’s hardly any better illustration of this than how Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., has been guarding the gate to healthcare reform.
Baucus chairs the Senate Finance Committee, one of several legislative entities with healthcare in its purview. In the name of a compromise that can win 60 votes, he’s held protracted negotiations with handpicked committee members from both parties. Notably absent from this group: Any liberals or aggressive supporters of a public option in healthcare.
The more liberal-leaning Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has passed a bill that includes a public option. But it will have to be reconciled with whatever Baucus and his crew come up with, and that has some liberals worried that their votes will be taken for granted, and that Baucus will force upon them a bill half-written by Republicans.
So some of the peasants are getting restless. The Hill reports talk among Senate Democrats of instituting a rule that would give them leverage over the Max Baucuses of the future. ("Max Baucuses of the Future" wouldn’t be a terrible name for a band.) Explains Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, “Every two years the caucus could have a secret ballot on whether a chairman should continue, yes or no.”
Technically, the Democratic caucus ratifies the leadership’s choice for committee chairmanships already, but this process is almost always a formality. (A rare exception was the vote on the status of Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., as chairman of his committee after he endorsed John McCain in the presidential election.) Harkin claims that reforms of this sort have been proposed before, and one anonymous senator endorses the idea, but only if no one tells Baucus. The Hill quotes that senator as saying, “Put me down as a yes, but if you use my name I’ll send a SWAT team after you.”
Democrats may feel frozen out by Baucus -- Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., complains that he’s technically in charge of the Finance Committee’s healthcare work, and isn’t even in on the secret meetings -- but for the moment they have little to no leverage over him. Party leaders apparently believe that the road to 60 votes runs through a Finance Committee compromise. If they want to win back in reconciliation or conference some of what Baucus negotiates away in committee, Democrats may have to make a convincing case that they’re willing to kill healthcare reform outright rather than vote for a watered-down version.