When Barack Obama was still battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination last spring, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus was holding hearings in preparation for a major health care overhaul effort in 2009.
When Obama and Sen. John McCain were debating through last fall, Baucus was writing a white paper detailing potential policy options.
And now, with an economic stimulus bill passed and the president having declared health care his top domestic priority, Baucus is ready to go.
"I just want to take advantage of this opportunity where the stars are aligned; it seems to be the time now to finally get the job done, to get meaningful health care reform in this country," he said in an interview.
Surprising Champion Of Revamping Health Care
No one doubts Baucus' devotion to the issue. But for many, like Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, it's come as a bit of a surprise.
"I think everybody came in presuming that Sen. Kennedy would really lead the way," he said, referring to Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, longtime health advocate and chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Compared to the passionate Kennedy (who's been mostly out for the past year being treated for a brain tumor), Stern said most people assumed that Baucus "would be more moderate in terms of financing and less interested in some of the other issues."
But instead, he says, with Baucus, "I think what we have seen is a senator as passionate, as committed, and committed to get this done, and [who] has spent an enormous amount of time, and I think has shown an even-tempered way of proceeding that's fairly transparent and very inclusive."
It's a far cry from the Baucus who voted for President Bush's tax cuts in 2001, prompting Stern's union to run ads against the senator. And the Baucus who angered his fellow Democrats when he helped write a mostly Republican Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003.
Looking For A Bipartisan Bill
But Baucus has made it clear that he wants to craft a bill that passes not with 51 Democratic votes, but with a huge majority of Democrats and Republicans.
"This should be something that the president and the Congress, Republicans and Democrats together, are jointly very proud of," Baucus said. "Every once in a while in history, there's a big moment that's very popular, and it's not really a partisan issue, it's an American issue."
Republicans have so far been cautiously pleased with the chairman's inclusive process, which has featured public "roundtable" sessions, followed by memos detailing possible policy options, then private, senators-only discussions leading up to a bill-drafting process set to begin in June.
Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the panel's top Republican, says he thinks Baucus is trying to model himself on a famous Montana predecessor, former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield.
"Mansfield was a person that thought that the Senate ought to do things — not be a stumbling block, do things," Grassley said. "And by do things in the Senate, it doesn't mean just do them the Democrat way or the Republican way. It means you eventually have got to get together. And I think that's where [Baucus] comes from."
Can Baucus Deliver?
But Baucus still has plenty of detractors. First among them are backers of a so-called single-payer system, who want to eliminate the role of private health insurance and have government pay all the nation's health care bills.
Baucus has said repeatedly that he thinks that's too big a change for the public or the political system to swallow. "We're not Canada," he said. "We're not Europe. We're not France. We're not Sweden. We're America, which means we have to write a uniquely American solution — and that means a combination of public and private."
Others fear that Baucus may be too quick to compromise away the public part of that public-private combination. Insurance companies are already furiously lobbying against a so-called public option that would let people choose between private insurance and a publicly financed plan similar to Medicare.
"The worry is that Mr. Baucus, who's taken huge amounts of money from the insurance companies and the drug companies, is going to do what they want him to do, which is to kill the public option," said Jerry Flanagan of the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog.
But other consumer advocates say they're confident Baucus will be able to strike a good deal.
"I think Sen. Baucus knows this is really his show this time," says Ron Pollack of the consumer group Families USA. "His party is in the majority. He is the chairman of the committee. And I think he is handling himself in an exemplary way."