Visiting Sen. Grassley At Home in Iowa

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Congress returns to Washington next week with health care on its mind. President Obama and the Democrats agree with Republicans that legislation overhauling health care should be bipartisan. And there may be no stronger advocate for bipartisanship on health care than Senator Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Finance Committee.

DAVID GREENE, Host:

Here in Washington, Congress will return next week and a proposed overhaul of health care will top the agenda. President Obama had said he wants the debate over health care to be bipartisan. And if that's going to happen, it could depend a lot on Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. He's known as a champion of bipartisanship. Grassley is feeling the pressure from all sides in Washington.

So NPR's David Welna went to find Grassley in the quieter confines of his home in Iowa.

DAVID WELNA: Before leaving for Iowa, I asked the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee about revamping health care with Senator Chuck Grassley. Montana Democrat Max Baucus called Grassley a good friend he usually agrees with.

MAX BAUCUS: Because neither of us want to be president, we work pretty well together. We have no ulterior motives, no hidden agenda. We just are very, very good - he's a good partner to work with.

WELNA: And the Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin, made this prediction.

DICK DURBIN: You're going to find him most comfortable at home sitting on his tractor looking at a corn field. And I hope that's where you find him.

WELNA: I'm standing on the frontline of Senator Chuck Grassley's rural home. It's down a long gravel road in countryside that has fields of shoulder-high corn on both sides of the road. His front yard has a wide lawn, which he mows himself.

CHUCK GRASSLEY: I bolt this on the back of here like so...

WELNA: (Unintelligible) the only tractor he now owns - a riding lawn mower. Chuck Grassley shows how he hitches two smaller mowers behind it to cut a wider swath of grass.

He's a trim 75-year-old, a former farmer who's the son of a farmer. Grassley's son sharecrops the land the senator has acquired over the years.

GRASSLEY: It's the only reason I have 750 acres now. It's because I decided money I made as a senator I decided to invest in land instead of in Wall Street.

WELNA: When asked to define himself politically, Grassley doesn't hesitate.

GRASSLEY: Very conservative but with a populist streak.

WELNA: As the key Congressional Republican on health care, Grassley is now the target of ads like this one on his local Fox News channel, paid for by a conservative group called The Coalition For Patients' Rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

WELNA: Now they're at it again with a government-run health care plan. It'll cost more than a trillion dollars and raise taxes 600 billion. Worse, it could put a bureaucrat in charge of your medical decisions, not you or your doctor. Tell Senator Grassley to put patients first and say no to a government-run health care plan.

WELNA: Grassley says he pays no attention to such pressure.

GRASSLEY: I'm not persuaded by the ads. I might be persuaded by the number of people that call as a result of the ads.

WELNA: Democrats demanding a public option as part of the health care overhaul are also putting pressure on Grassley. At a town hall meeting outside Dubuque, Iowa, disabled veteran John Harvey tells Grassley he's voted for him in the past.

JOHN HARVEY: And I want you to know that we know that you're the main person that could stop all this from this public option. And I just want to urge you to vote for the public option and to take care of that issue.

WELNA: Grassley won't be budged though.

GRASSLEY: There's about a dozen Democrats that are also opposed to it, and so if Chuck Grassley didn't exist it would still have a tough time getting through the Senate.

WELNA: Later, Grassley says he's willing to consider patient-owned health insurance cooperatives as an alternative to a public plan. Some leading Democrats say such a cooperative should be nationwide. That would be a deal- breaker for Grassley.

GRASSLEY: The extent to which it becomes nationwide, then you run into the political problem that people would see a national co-op as just another way of saying a public option.

WELNA: At another town hall in Elkader, Iowa, schoolteacher Ted Clinger implores Grassley not to back taxing health care benefits, an option being explored both by Democrats and Republicans.

TED CLINGER: That's one of the few breaks we get that's consistent, the pre-tax health insurance. Hopefully when you and Senator Baucus and Senator Dodd and everyone gets done with it, you can at least keep that one break for those of us in the middle class that show up for work every day.

WELNA: Grassley assures him that if health care benefits are taxed, President Obama will have to convince his fellow Democrats to support such a measure. Meanwhile, Grassley says many fellow Republicans say it's a mistake to negotiate with the Democrats on health care.

GRASSLEY: They believe that Democrats will implode in the process of getting this done and then come crawling to the Republicans to help them get something passed, and we'll have some input at that point. Or the Democrats will fail. That's rolling the dice.

WELNA: Grassley says he'll keep working with Democrats to make sure whatever emerges from Congress on health care is truly bipartisan.

David Welna, NPR News.

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