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The Gatekeeper of the Senate

November 7, 2008 - by Donny Shaw

Over at the American Prospect, Ezra Klein has an excellent profile of one of the most influential members of the Senate – the man that will control legislative action on Barack Obama’s healthcare reform – Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT).

The main takeaway from the article, I think, is that Baucus will be really good at getting Obama’s policy priorities passed through Congress, but he’ll be more than willing to water them down and lard them up in the process. Here’s what I think is the key excerpt:

>Baucus’ habit of coming to agreement with not only his committee’s ranking Republican but also the Republican Party has often led to sharp tensions with the Democratic Caucus. Baucus has always been moderate, but no more so than red-state senators like Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas or Ben Nelson of Nebraska. When Baucus ascended to chair of the Finance Committee, however, his tendency to cut a deal with the Republicans rather than stand with the interests of the Democratic Party caused no small amount of controversy. In particular, Baucus found himself butting heads with Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who also served on the Finance Committee.
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>The key event was the 2003 Medicare vote. The original Senate bill had broad bipartisan support, including from such progressive luminaries as Ted Kennedy. But the version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives was a demonstration of Tom DeLay’s ability to wield raw partisan power. The two chambers met in conference committee to come up with a final bill, but Republicans largely locked Democrats out of the process. Only Baucus and John Breaux – two Democrats known and mistrusted for their moderate tendencies – were allowed in. It was a slap in the face to the bipartisanship Baucus and Grassley had worked so hard to maintain. Bill Thomas, then chair of the Ways and Means Committee, controlled the process, and he larded the legislation with health savings accounts, private insurers in Medicare, a prohibition barring the government from bargaining down drug prices, and much else on the conservative wish list.
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>The Democratic leadership in the Senate judged the situation a cruel farce and urged both Breaux and Baucus not to legitimize the process with their presence. As conservative congressional analyst Norm Ornstein said at the time, Democrats with any loyalty to their party would have said, “If you don’t let in Tom Daschle – our leader, elected by the Senate to be in the room – then we’re not going in the room.” But Baucus and Breaux participated, and the bill passed.
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>The aftermath of the fight was rough. Many in the Democratic Caucus felt betrayed by Baucus, and there was talk of stripping him of his position on the Finance Committee. Daschle mused publicly about the need to impose more party discipline. But others I spoke to sided with Baucus. Their argument went something like this: The resulting legislation may have been deeply flawed, but it was also the largest entitlement expansion since the Great Society.

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