Max Baucus Has Only Himself To Blame

I have little sympathy for Baucus at this point, when he complains that his adversaries have had time to put out a report attacking his bill. Because there is one reason that they've had all that time.
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The big news today on the healthcare reform front is the health insurance industry attacking such reform by releasing an industry-written report, one day before Senator Max Baucus' committee is (finally) scheduled to vote on their version of a healthcare reform bill. The report, from America's Health Insurance Plans (an industry group), has already been called a "hatchet job" by Democrats, because the industry is threatening to raise the average premium for health insurance by 110 percent -- more than doubling out-of-pocket costs for American families. A spokesman from the AARP shot back: "I really don't think [the AHIP report is] worth the paper it's written on." A spokesman for Senator Baucus fumed: "It's a health insurance company hatchet job, plain and simple."

But Baucus really needs look no further than his own mirror to see who is responsible -- if not for the report itself, then at least for the report's timing. Because Baucus has been almost as obstructionist as the Republicans in getting to the point we are at now. Meaning he is responsible for the dwindling amount of time we have left to get healthcare reform passed this year.

Consider this: we were supposed to be at this point at the beginning of August. Actually, that's not even true. President Obama originally gave Congress a timetable for passing healthcare reform legislation. It called for getting the bills through a floor vote in both houses of Congress before they took their five-week break in August. This proved to be unreasonably optimistic, so he later dialed it back to just getting a bill out of the five committees before the extended summer break. So, after moving the goalposts once, in August we were supposed to be at the point where we will (hopefully) be late tomorrow, after Baucus' committee (finally!) votes a bill out.

Four committees did achieve this goal, it should be pointed out -- three in the House, and one in the Senate (Teddy Kennedy's committee). One committee in the Senate didn't make it -- Max Baucus' Senate Finance Committee. That was two and a half months ago. Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid then strongly pushed for a deadline of September 15, for Baucus to produce. Mid-September came and went. Mid-October was actually another deadline -- when Reid was going to start using "budget reconciliation" to move a bill with just a majority vote instead of the 60 votes needed to reach cloture to override a filibuster threat. We are now way behind on that schedule, too.

There are only two and a half months left in Congress' legislative year. In this short period of time, Congress usually takes enormous chunks of time off for Thanksgiving and Christmas. So there just aren't that many weeks left to pull this thing together. Reid, to his credit, has already cancelled a Senate week off for Columbus Day, but cancelling Thanksgiving and Christmas is a whole different ball of wax.

And we've still got a long way to go. Once Baucus' committee (Finally!!) votes a bill out, we will then have a total of five bills. The two in the Senate will have to be melded into one, and the three in the House will also have to be combined. Then a floor vote for each of these, and if both make it through, finally a conference committee between the houses and a final floor vote for a single piece of legislation. That's a tall order for the amount of time we have left.

One idea being floated is a good one, which is to do the conference committee right away. Instead of having a separate House bill and Senate bill, combine all five bills and try to get a single piece of legislation through both houses from the start. If both houses could manage to vote on the same bill, then there would be no need for a conference committee later on, and it could go straight to the president's desk.

This is not likely to happen, I should point out. But it's still a good idea. Start in both houses with the same bill, and then whatever amendments pass in both houses will be the only thing the conference committee will have to deal with. In other words, the differences between the two will be far fewer, and less sweeping. Making the whole conference committee process a lot easier to get through.

But whatever the chances are, and however it is handled by the congressional leadership, the point is we just wasted two and a half months. And by "we," I mean "Senator Max Baucus." Before August happened, the talk was all of "bipartisanship" (ah, those naive days of early summer...) and the "Gang of Six," who were going to hammer out a bill that lots of Republicans would vote for. By the end of August, the Republicans were all but smirking into their sleeves on national television saying: "We were never going to vote for anything that would help Obama politically, and we just burned up a month proving that to the Democrats."

But then, even after we got to that point, we then sat through another month and a half of delay. And that delay can be laid at the feet of Max Baucus. Is the bill the Finance Committee going to vote on tomorrow substantially different than what they had at the beginning of September? No, it is not. Is it substantially better? No, it is not. Is it going to win over any Republican votes (other than, perhaps, Olympia Snowe)? No, it is not. Were those six weeks wasted? Yes, they were.

Which gave time for the healthcare industry to mobilize against Baucus' bill. Meaning Baucus is largely responsible for the attack coming now.

Now, to be fair, the industry may have had this report up their proverbial sleeve for months, and have just been waiting for the crucial moment to unveil it. If Baucus had voted in late July along with the other four committees, it may have been released then. Meaning the whole town hall period in August may have been even more focused and white-hot than it already was. Which could have changed the whole debate in unknowable ways.

But even if all of that were true, we would be a lot further down the road at this point in Congress than we are now if Baucus had acted in a timely manner. We would now be having floor debates about healthcare reform bills, and perhaps something may have even been passed by either the House or the Senate by now. We might even have already been in conference committee, hammering out a final bill.

But we are not. We are still waiting on Baucus. That wait is supposed to be over tomorrow. When his committee finally (FINALLY!!!) votes a bill out. But I have little sympathy for Baucus at this point, when he complains that his adversaries have had time to put out a report attacking his bill. Because there is one reason that they've had all that time. And Max Baucus needn't look further than his own mirror to see it.

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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