Sen. Grassley Shifts Stance On Health Care

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the leader of the GOP on the Senate Finance Committee, has backed off his earlier commitments to bipartisan health care changes and become the prime obstacle to legislation. The apparent shift in position follows weeks of rowdy town hall meetings.

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And while Democrats consider whether they should go it alone on health care, a bipartisan group of senators is still meeting to hammer out a compromise. Last night, the group of six got together by phone. They emerged with the announcement that they remain committed to coming up with a compromise. But weeks of rowdy town halls have visibly affected the Republican leader of that group, Iowas Chuck Grassley.

NPRs Audie Cornish has this profile.

(Soundbite of music)

AUDIE CORNISH: Heres what Grassley means when he says his constituents are his top priority.

Senator CHUCK GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): If a little old lady comes into your office and wants her toenails clipped, clip her toenails.

CORNISH: Thats a clip from a day in the life of Senator Chuck Grassley, a 2007 video on the Iowa Republicans own Web site, where he also hosts weekly Web casts and tutorials on the legislative process. Every year the senator makes it a point to hold public hearings in all 99 Iowa counties by Labor Day. And this year, Grassley got an earful at town halls like this one in the city of Adel.

Unidentified Man: And the last thing is, if this is so good for us, the American people, why has Congress excluded themselves and their family from this bill?

(Soundbite of cheering)

CORNISH: Grassley found himself a target because hes been in negotiations with Democrats. But when he tried to distance himself from the bill, he stirred controversy in the other direction. For instance, at one point, Grassley claimed that Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who has been battling brain cancer, would go untreated in a country with government-run care. Grassley apologized for that remark. But Democrats complain the Iowa senator has failed to uphold the spirit of the negotiations.

For example, he has not disputed the false claim that end-of-life counseling and the health care proposal amounts to death panel. Heres Grassley in the Iowa town of Winterset.

Sen. GRASSLEY: Some people that think its a terrible problem that grandmas laying in the hospital bed with tubes in her and think that there ought to be some government policy that enters into that, I am just on the opposite.

CORNISH: Political analyst Charlie Cook says Grassley is known to be unpredictable.

Mr. CHARLIE COOK (Political Analyst): Hes somebody that just sort of says whatever is on his mind any given moment and that means that its not necessarily all headed the same way, sticking to one script.

CORNISH: So while Grassley started out talking bipartisan deal and negotiating, hes now saying he wont vote for the bill, even with his own changes, unless lots of other Republicans do too. So is he still at the negotiating table or not? We caught up with him while he was traveling by bus to Iowa State University in Ames this week.

Sen. GRASSLEY: Ive always said Im not going to walk away from the table. If I get away from the table its because Im pushed away from the table.

CORNISH: But one thing Grassley says he wants to protect and improve the care Iowans get, especially by changing the reimbursement formula under Medicaid, which he says gives rural areas short shrift. Whats more? Grassley says his negotiating so far has made the bill more acceptable to Republicans.

Sen. GRASSLEY: There has been several positions that our caucus has taken: no public option, no things that are going to lead to any rationing of health care, no interference with doctor-patient relationship and tort reform. And about the only place where we havent made progress along the lines of what the Republicans have been wanting in a bill is on tort reform.

CORNISH: Grassley says August has hurt the prospects for a health care bill this year, and he clearly doesnt want changes to the system to anger the folks back home enough to hurt his own prospects for reelection next year. Right now, no well-known Iowan has emerged to challenge the five-term veteran in the primary or the general, and Grassley wants to keep it that way.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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