Obama and Montana's Baucus: Who needs whom?

The president visited the senator's home state Friday, even as Baucus works to get GOP support for healthcare reform. Both men are being blasted from the left and the right.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Obama spoke about healthcare during a White House meeting with Senate Democrats in June. At left is Sen. Max Baucus of Montana.

Why Montana?

President Obama could hold a town hall meeting on healthcare anywhere. But he headed west Friday – way west – to revisit a state that not only gave him a boost in last year's Democratic primary election but that also is home to a certain US senator whose work on healthcare reform could be pivotal to the young administration's success on this issue.

(There's also, of course, the allure of Yellowstone National Park, which the first family will experience while they are in this neck of the woods.)

In some ways, Montana is a nerve center in the national debate now raging over healthcare reform. In no small measure this is owed to the fact that a major player and potential Obama ally is Sen. Max Baucus, a six-term Democrat hailing from a ranch near Helena who is also chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. If there's to be any bipartisan support in Congress for a plan to expand health coverage in America, that's the committee where the deals will probably be cut.

“My first impression when I heard that Obama was coming out here is that he wanted to send a gentle but not-too-subtle message to Baucus that the senator needs to bring forward a healthcare plan the president wants,” says Jim Gransbury, who recently retired as the state’s elder political journalist for The Billings Gazette.

On Friday the president talked with Baucus constituents about what it is he does want, and why. Tension over this issue has been building here for months.

The local newspaper made a plea for citizens to be civil and to depart from the disruptive behavior and angry shouting that have marked town-hall events held by lawmakers elsewhere.

Leaders of the Gallatin County Democrats even asked their GOP counterparts to sign a “civility pledge” during Obama’s visit. The Republicans refused, insisting that their dissent would not be subdued.

Not since Mike Mansfield served in the Senate and worked closely with President John Kennedy in the early 1960s has the state had a closer tethering to a president. The relationship between Obama and Baucus has been respectful, but there have been signs of friction, with speculation rife that the senator might avoid the president during his visit. As it turned out, Baucus had a modest role at the town hall meeting, introducing a mother who is facing healthcare choices.

Of Baucus, Obama said only: "I want to thank Senator Max Baucus for his hard work on a bill as chair of the Finance Committee – and for his commitment to getting this done."

Both men have been pounded relentlessly by the far left for not embracing a so-called single payer approach to universal healthcare (in which the government takes the place of private insurers). The president’s alternative – offering the public the option of choosing a government-run insurance plan – has been characterized as a socialist ruse by the far right.

Baucus, who was first elected to the Senate in 1978, won a sixth term last fall with almost 73 percent of the vote – a huge margin that suggests Montanans are in no way dissatisfied with him.

Still, critics are suggesting that Baucus is captive to the interests of insurance and pharmaceutical companies, because of the campaign contributions he has received from those industries while insisting that the single-payer approach is neither feasible nor practical. He was one of the few Democrats during the Bush administration to side with Republicans on tax issues and on a prescription-drug law that most in his party condemned.

Whether Baucus can deliver bipartisan support for healthcare reform – and what compromises will be made with the liberal wing of his party to do so – will become clearer when Congress returns from recess in the fall. Meanwhile, some Montanans doubt whether he can pull it off and say a party-line vote may be inevitable.

“I don’t see the president or Senator Baucus achieving much bipartisan support on healthcare,” says political scientist Jerry Calvert from Montana State University. “I think they are pursuing an illusion. If the Democrats really want reform, they are going to have to stiffen up and just get it done.”

Besides healthcare, Baucus also figures prominently in another politically seismic issue for Obama: The administration’s desire to create a cap and trade market for carbon dioxide, to slow climate change.

Baucus, for his part, seems not to be cowed by the harsh rhetoric surrounding the healthcare issue. Earlier this week, when caught between boisterous groups of competing protesters as he showed up for a healthcare forum, he didn't take evasive action, recounts Rick Meis, founder of Montanans for Single Payer.

“He waded right into the middle of the Tea Baggers. They were shouting at him and screaming bloody murder. But here was one of the most powerful men on Capitol Hill, listening,” says Mr. Meis. “He’s not going to make any headway with people who accuse him and Obama of being socialists, but he took them on anyway.”

Meis is critical of both Baucus and Obama for staking out more moderate positions on healthcare. Yet he senses that if healthcare reform isn’t passed and signed this fall, it could become derailed for the rest of Obama’s term.


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