MADELEINE BRAND, host:
When it comes to health care, a few lawmakers matter a lot more than others. One of those is Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana. As head of the Senate Finance Committee, he has the clout to determine who wins and who loses in this health care battle. And so everyone wants to be close to him. In this installment of NPR's Dollar Politics Project, we'll hear first from Peter Overby.
PETER OVERBY: Max Baucus comes around the corner of a Senate hallway, and the reporters pounce. Baucus talks, but he also starts moving toward the senatorial elevator. The scrum of reporters, including me, lurches along behind him. Finally, at the elevator, Baucus insists that Congress will pass a bill.
Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana; Chairman, Senate Finance Committee): We're spending way too much on health care in this country. We spend twice as much per capita than other countries. We can't go on like this. We've got to pass this legislation. And we will.
OVERBY: Baucus is the nexus of dozens, maybe hundreds of interests in this bill. At a recent Kaiser Family Foundation forum, he described the way he networks with them.
Sen. BAUCUS: Lots of meetings with outside groups, lots of on-the-phone, a couple, three times a day with different groups, consumer groups, with labor, with industry groups, and finding out, gee, what do you think about this? What do you think about that? Just trying to put the pieces together.
OVERBY: And he can leverage these relationships, get groups to debate rather than face each other with knives drawn.
Sen. BAUCUS: Hold off judgment. Suspend judgment at least for 15 minutes. Try to see if there's a way to get to yes. Think about it. There might be a positive angle here.
OVERBY: But keep in mind, the relationships go two ways. Every single one of those groups has its own agenda first in mind.
ANDREA SEABROOK: I'm Andrea Seabrook. To try to understand this one man's influence, I went to Paul Blumenthal, a writer for the nonpartisan watchdog the Sunlight Foundation.
Mr. PAUL BLUMENTHAL (Writer, Sunlight Foundation): At the center of this graphic, we have Max Baucus, who represents a single node, as the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
SEABROOK: Blumenthal points to his computer screen, and a map of the complex relationships Max Baucus has with outside interests. You can see it at npr.org. In the graphic, lines radiate from Baucus to five of his own former staffers. Two of them served as chief of staff, the top job, in his Senate office.
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: And then coming out from them, we connect to the health care clients that they represent as lobbyists.
SEABROOK: Wyeth, Merck, Amgen, AstraZeneca, Wal-Mart - all companies with big business to gain or lose, all companies represented by lobbyists who used to work for Max Baucus.
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: In Washington, relationships are part of the huge game of influence. And if you don't have a relationship with someone on the Hill, then you aren't going to have the kind of access that you need for your client.
SEABROOK: So, says Blumenthal, these lobbyists and their clients have a unique brand of access to one man at the center of the health care debate.
OVERBY: That's right. And to back up that access, money - the very thing that puts Max Baucus at the heart of Congress' ethical conflict. You see, lawmakers have two constituencies: the voters back home, and then the people and interests that pay for their reelection campaigns, who are usually out of state.
SEABROOK: You can tell how much special interests are courting a senator by where the lawmaker gets their money from. So take, say, Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. About half of her campaign money came from donors inside Louisiana, half from outside. But Max Baucus, only 13 percent of his money came from Montana, while nearly half came from outside, especially from health care and other industries overseen by his committee. All this data comes from the Center for Responsive Politics.
OVERBY: So, again, 13 percent of Baucus' campaign money from Montana, nearly half from outside interests. And there's more. Baucus has a personal leadership PAC, and it got three-quarters of its money from political action committees tied to corporations, trade associations and lobbyists. Baucus courts these special interest donors by inviting them to Montana for weekend getaways.
SEABROOK: Skis and snowmobiles in February, fly fishing and golf in June. And coming up in just 10 days, Camp Baucus. Tickets start at $2,500.
OVERBY: So as Baucus and others attempt to craft a bill that can bust through a virtual gridlock of interests, their real constituencies, the voters back home, could take a backseat to the dollar constituencies.
SEABROOK: The ones that are at the Capitol every day. Andrea Seabrook…
OVERBY: And Peter Overby…
SEABROOK: …NPR News, Washington.
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