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The Middle East is one of several issues like two wars in the economy that will demand attention whether President Obama likes it or not. Still the president wants to make progress this year on what he would like to be a top priority. He wants to change the health care system. And he will depend in part on the man who we'll report on next. Max Baucus is not the most outspoken member of the United States Senate. He is among the most influential, and he wants to deliver on the promise of changing health care. NPR's Julie Rovner reports on the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

JULIE ROVNER: Some of the most famous names ever to have served in Congress have wielded the Senate Finance Committees' gavel, people like Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun in the 1800s. More recent well known chairmen include Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan. These days however the chairmanship is occupied by the relatively unassuming Max Baucus of Montana. He jokes that he's made health care his first, second, third and fourth priority for the year. But his single mindedness on the issue has been all serious. Last year he held a dozen hearings in a day long summit. Then just after the election, Baucus followed up with the well received white paper detailing policy options. To say he is into it is an understatement.

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana): Every time there's a vote on the floor I (unintelligible) buttonhole some other senator on all this. It's a lot of fun. I have never attempted anything so challenging, but I just relish it. This is a lot of fun. It's really interesting.

ROVNER: John Rother, of the senior group AARP, who's known Baucus pretty much since he came to the Senate in 1978, says it's been a pretty big change. Until fairly recently, the Democratic senator from a largely Republican state really only concentrated on one thing.

Mr. JOHN ROTHER (AARP): It was Montana really. He came into this as a senator from Montana. And it wasn't until he really became chair, I think, that he started in more national terms.

ROVNER: Around the Senate, Baucus was once known derisively as the Montana's city councilman. His main priority was bringing federal money back to his home state, but no more. Since rising to the top spot at finance in 2001, Baucus has focused firmly on national issues: trade, taxes and now health care.

He's worked closely with Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, the panel's top Republican. That's caused more than a little consternation among some of its fellow Democrats. They say Baucus is too quick to compromise.

But during a ride on the Senate subway, Grassley said he thinks Baucus is modeling himself on another famous Montana Democratic senator, Mike Mansfield.

Senator CHUCK GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): Mansfield was a person who thought the Senate ought to do things, not be a stumbling block - do things. And by doing things, you know, in the Senate, it doesn't mean just doing the Democrat way or the Republican way, it means you eventually got to get together. And I think that's where he comes from. I mean, that would be his style.

ROVNER: Indeed, in an interview in his office, Baucus makes it very clear that he's not going to settle to small changes to the current health care system.

Sen. BAUCUS: I don't want to just nickel and dime, work around the edges, I want something that's very solid, that's comprehensive, because that's the only way we can solve it.

ROVNER: And while Baucus has made it clear that everything is on the table for discussion, the changes he envisioned are going to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Here's how he put it at a hearing last week:

Sen. BAUCUS: America is a battleship. We're not a PT boat, we can't turn on a dime. Americans have expectations about what they have and don't have. It's the devil you know versus the devil you don't know. And I just humbly submit (unintelligible) work with the system that we have.

ROVNER: That attitude has outraged supporters of a so-called single payer system, who want to push aside private insurance companies and have the government finance health care. Baucus has said repeatedly he thinks that's too big a change.

But even backers of less sweeping change still have their doubts about the chairman. He was, after all, one of only two Democrats who participated in the drafting of a controversial Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003 that many considered too generous to the drug and insurance industries.

Jerry Flanagan of Consumer Watchdog, says his forces are worried that Baucus will also bargain away what many Democrats say is essential to a health care overhaul, allowing consumers to choose a government-run plan as an alternative to private insurance.

Mr. JERRY FLANAGAN (Consumer Watchdog): We're very, very concerned that the man who's driving the train is taking so much money from the industry that stands to profit. Of the current Democrats in Congress, he's taken more money than any other Democrat. And that's a problem because the industry is coming calling to get its favors filled.

ROVNER: One of those favors: no public plan. But other liberal groups say they have confidence in Baucus. Ron Pollack heads the consumer group Families USA.

Mr. RON POLLACK (Families USA): I think over the years he's learned a great deal and he's putting that learning to good use now.

ROVNER: He'll need every ounce of that negotiating skill to successfully get a health bill out of his committee and out of the Senate.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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