Salon: The Loneliness of Max Baucus

Salon:

In the end, after months and months of negotiations aimed at winning bipartisan support for a healthcare reform bill in the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus was all alone on Wednesday as he announced his draft proposal. He stood, looking lonely, in front of a backdrop that could have accommodated his entire so-called Gang of Six — if, that is, the talks had worked out. As it was, he showed up as a Gang of One. But don’t tell Baucus his work had come to naught. “No Republican has offered his or her support at this moment,” he admitted. “But I think by the time we get the final passage in this committee, you’ll find Republican support. This is a bill that should enjoy broad support.”

Right now, though, it doesn’t. Republicans — including the ones Baucus has been painstakingly courting — bashed it mercilessly. “This is the most complicated bill any of us have ever worked on,” Enzi said in a statement. Grassley, whom Baucus wooed even as he asked Iowa Republicans for help defeating the healthcare bill, complained that no one would guarantee that Democrats would agree meekly to swallow whatever the Gang of Six came up with: “An overriding issue for some time has been the fact that members of the Democratic leadership haven’t made a commitment to back a broad bipartisan bill through the entire process.” GOP leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the plan outright: “Only in Washington would anyone think [it] makes sense, especially in this economy.”

Many Democrats were even harsher. “We can do better,” said Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who was cut out of the negotiations even though he’s on the Finance Committee. Russ Feingold, of Wisconsin, called it “healthcare reform in name only.” Another Finance Democrat, John Kerry, told me as he ducked into an elevator that “I just think there’s some issues with the substance.” Conservative Ben Nelson of Nebraska — a target of the Baucus negotiations almost as much as the Republicans were — couldn’t even manage to offer much of an endorsement. “I’ve reviewed the summary of the summary,” he said. “That’s as far as I am right now.”

Baucus had managed, it seemed, to produce bipartisan unity after all — but against, not for, his bill. The whole point of the exercise had been to get Republicans on board, and they walked away. Baucus himself had said, last week, that a deal was there to be had, but “it comes down to a matter of political will.” The GOP turned out not to have it. But Baucus still sounded surprised to finally learn that.

“We’ve debated this thing — we’ve met over a hundred hours,” he said. “I forget what the total is. There are no real policy deal-breakers. It just — it’s more getting more comfortable with what all this is.”

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