HELENA – In Big Sky country, there’s no limit on strong opinions about Democratic Sen. Max Baucus and his struggle to fulfill President Barack Obama’s goal of health care overhaul.
He’s already gotten an earful — and eyeful — and should expect plenty more this month when he travels around his home state of Montana. Even Obama is planning to make a stop in the state next week, putting even more focus on Baucus.
The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee has spent long hours trying to come up with bipartisan health care legislation that would meet Obama’s twin goals of extending coverage to nearly 50 million uninsured Americans and containing skyrocketing costs.
But the decades-long effort to remake the nation’s system of providing medical care is a long, politically charged slog that elicits strong emotions.
Liberal advocates of a government-run system and one-time Baucus allies wear T-shirts and carry signs with slogans like: “Max Baucus: The Best Senator Insurance Companies Can Buy,” as they did this past weekend when they lined the road on the way to the pricey “Camp Baucus” fundraiser at the ritzy Big Sky resort.
They are by far the most outspoken in Montana.
“People are angry,” said Gene Fenderson of Helena, who voted for Baucus like most of the protesters. “They are frustrated. They don’t want a hodgepodge that no one can figure out.
“I know right now they are certainly alienated.”
Four of five congressional committees have completed work on health care legislation. Baucus has set a Sept. 15 deadline for his panel, though Senate Democrats frustrated with the pace of bipartisan negotiations could push for a bill to Democratic specifications only.
For now, Baucus is adamant that only a bipartisan plan will stand up to scrutiny down the road.
“My job is to do what I think is right. We had to come up with a uniquely American plan. We are not Sweden, we are not Canada, we are not Japan. We are America,” Baucus said in an interview.
But even the state’s top Democrats have reservations about the push for overhaul. Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he trusts Baucus to find a plan that can get 60 votes in the Senate, but he’s not sure it’s worth it.
The governor said he worries the plan will shift costs to states. Schweitzer said cost containment, in general, should be a top priority and thinks it would be a disaster to require that people buy insurance out of the current system.
“If that’s it, I don’t know what we have gained. But it’s not over yet, the fat lady has not even begun to sing,” Schweitzer said.
The Montana Democratic Party chairman — Dennis McDonald, who is making his own run for Congress against Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg — just came out in favor of single-payer at a time when the issue is very difficult for Baucus.
Conservatives who oppose health care overhaul and Republicans have lined up against the effort, with the GOP hoping it weakens the state’s most powerful Democrat.
Baucus is not backing down from his plan to hash out a compromise with a small, bipartisan group of senators, no matter if it takes much longer than Democratic leaders would like. He has told President Obama “it will be ready when it’s ready” — even if that means waiting until September.
That has angered liberal bloggers, who are trashing Baucus with expletives and criticism usually saved for Republicans.
At the same time, Montanans figured Baucus would shoot down the middle and cut deals with Republicans. They have become accustomed to it — and Baucus talked about his “uniquely American, bipartisan” plan all last year during his campaign, long before the rest of the country took note.
“Baucus has not changed at all since the start of this debate,” said liberal blogger Jay Stevens of the locally well-known Left in the West. “The problem is that Baucus is not changing with the debate.”
And conservatives, while less vocal at the moment, are drumming up opposition against anything that spends more money.
“I think its the worst scenario possible for him — he is catching flak from both sides,” said Jake Eaton, who runs a conservative group in Montana called Patients First.
The group has held its own public rallies against the leading congressional plans, but they are usually smaller and less vocal than ones held by Democrats and other liberal groups.
GOP Party Chairman Will Deschamps said those liberals could cause some problems for the Montana Democratic Party.
“If Sen. Baucus doesn’t start taking some of these folks seriously, he is going to have problems with his bill,” Deschamps said, predicting that Baucus is aiming for a bill that could mute traditional GOP criticism over government-run health care.
“I am sure that is what he is trying to do, but there will be plenty there for us to criticize,” Deschamps said.
But not all conservatives are in opposition. Some say they will have to see what the final Baucus plan looks like. And many say it is certainly preferable to more liberal plans being cooked up in the House.
Even Baucus recognizes that not everyone will like a bipartisan plan capable of getting 60 votes in the Senate, but promises it will still be a big improvement. And he is banking on the political middle lining up behind it.
“I think in the end, people will realize it’s not perfect,” Baucus said. “But in the end, they will realize it’s something that had to be done.”
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