Sen. Enzi Plays Crucial Role Negotiating Health Care

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) represents the smallest state in population but he has a big role to play in the negotiations to overhaul health care. Enzi is one of the "gang of six" senators crafting the Senate's health care bill. He says he won't vote for any measure that can't get the support of 75 to 80 senators.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Even as the health care debate grows louder and more partisan, one Senate group of three Democrats and three Republicans has continued to meet, searching for a compromise. Perhaps the most surprising member of this group, known as the Gang of Six, is a conservative Republican from Wyoming. He may represent the nation's least populous state, but this is one senator who's enjoying outsized influence on health care negotiations. NPR's Audie Cornish has this profile.

AUDIE CORNISH: When the Gang of Six announced its existence earlier this year, one gang member's name raised eyebrows: Mike Enzi. Unlike the moderates and the mavericks in the group, Enzi's a free market conservative who represents one of the most reliably Republican states in the union, so even having him at the table with Democrats raised questions in some quarters. The conservative-minded Club for Growth even put out a TV ad attacking the health care changes in general and calling out Enzi by name.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Man: Politicians and bureaucrats making health care decisions. Job-killing new regulations on small business and massive tax hikes to pay for it all. Tell Senator Enzi not to cave into the liberals on health care.

CORNISH: Earlier this summer, Enzi did stand his ground when he voted against the Senate Health Committee Bill. But the Wyoming Republican is also a member of the Senate Finance Committee, where he was tapped to be part of the so-called Gang of Six. Enzi, the Senate's only certified accountant, has been willing to work on bipartisan deals in the past and takes this approach.

Senator MIKE ENZI (Republican, Wyoming): I work on an 80 percent rule. I anticipate and from experience have found that usually everybody can agree on 80 percent of the issues. And among the 80 of the issues they agree on, they can agree on 80 percent of anyone of those issues. And you never get a perfect bill around here. If you can get 80 percent, you can get a lot done.

CORNISH: Perhaps. But it's not clear that approach is working on health care. So far, Enzi has only hardened his stance on issues, like fighting Medicare savings to pay for universal coverage, even though every proposal put forward so far relies on that funding mechanism.

Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, says Enzi is important as a counterweight to the other Republicans on the negotiating team: Maine's Olympia Snowe and Iowa's Chuck Grassley.

Professor JACK PITNEY (Political Science, Claremont McKenna College): Some conservative Republicans might look at Olympia Snowe and say, well, she's a moderate-to-liberal Republican. Always has been. Chuck Grassley is a bit more conservative, but has a reputation for being quirky and being a maverick. Enzi is more of a mainstream Republican. So if he comes along on something like this, there is a much stronger chance that this is going to attract some Republican support.

CORNISH: But that's a big if. Lately, Enzi has cast doubt on whether he or any Republican will vote for any health care bill if it contains elements such as a government-run health care insurance option. That has some in the White House and Congress considering splitting the health care overhaul into two bills. One would include bipartisan changes even Enzi could support.

The other would include contentious items, like the public insurance option. And it would be pushed through using a parliamentary procedure that would allow Democrats to pass a bill with a simple majority. That's a tactic Enzi has warned against for months.

Sen. ENZI: It's a declaration that Republican ideas and centrists Democrat ideas are going to be left out of the mix. If we can't come up with a plan that will garner the support of at least 75 or 80 senators, this institution will not gain the confidence of the American people.

CORNISH: Needless to say, the gap between a bill requiring 75 or 80 senators and one requiring just 50 is vast, indeed. Nonetheless, Senator Enzi says he'll still dial in for the next Gang of Six session - a teleconference set for September 4th.

Audie Cornish, NPR News.

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