Their Man on Health Care

Health-reform experts were all asking the same question last week: Why the heck is Mike Enzi one of six senators crafting the health-care bill?

Enzi, a Republican and the senior senator from Wyoming, is among the small group of Senate Finance Committee members negotiating health-care reform. Though the health-care bill from the Finance Committee will be one among many, and neither the most effective reform nor the most liberal, it does hold the promise of attracting the most Republican (and conservative Democratic) votes, an important goal for the administration and Senate leadership.

Among the six members of the finance committee-within-a-committee, Enzi is both the most obvious member and the most, well, strange. Obvious because he's also the ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, the other Senate body with jurisdiction over health care. He's also pushed for market-based health reform for years now, citing his experience as a Certified Public Accountant and small businessman.

But as recently as 2003, Enzi was a member of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call's "obscure" caucus. Known as a behind-the-scenes player, he's never taken the lead on a major legislative initiative, though he has worked effectively with Democrats like Ted Kennedy and Paul Sarbanes to gain Republican votes for major legislation. But neither legislator is around today, and the leader of the Democratic negotiating team, Sen. Max Baucus, isn't known for his ability to produce compromises liked by both sides of the aisle.

The other two Republicans in the negotiations make more sense. Iowa's Chuck Grassley, the ranking member of the Finance Committee, is a longtime partner of Baucus' and a feisty public figure in his own right, dispensing incomprehensible tweets with the best of them. Maine's Susan Collins participates in the negotiations as a representative, along with her fellow Mainer, Olympia Snowe, of the last bastion of moderate Republicanism in the Senate. The third member of this group, Arlen Specter, bit the bullet and switched parties earlier in the year after their tiny coalition joined Senate Democrats to pass President Barack Obama's ambitious stimulus legislation.

And that, it seems, is why Enzi has found his way into the negotiations. Snowe and Collins won't need too much persuading to get behind the bill, but, as Jon Cohn argues, Grassley won't want to be seen as the only mainstream conservative signing the president's health-care bill, hence Enzi's presence.

But is Enzi's presence worth the trouble? The most conservative member of an already right-tilted crew of legislators, he's pushing for cuts in subsidies for the uninsured, minimum benefits, and limits to anti-discrimination clauses. He's also against a public insurance plan. Those positions might fly among the Gang of Six, but they won't make it past the larger Finance Committee or the more liberal House of Representatives; they don't match up with the president's vision either. Whatever compromise comes out of Finance will itself be subject to compromise, on the Senate floor and in the conference committee that will resolve differences between the House and Senate bills.

Unless, of course, Enzi gets his way. Just before the August recess, he issued a statement demanding, "commitments from Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi, as well as the Administration, that the bipartisan agreements reached in the Finance Committee will survive in a final bill that goes to the President." That is to say, he wanted the rest of the American government to rubber-stamp agreements made by six senators who collectively represent 2.74 percent of the U.S. population. That's no way to fix a health-care system that affects every person in the country.

This column has repeatedly argued that key to success for Democrats is policy victories, not bipartisan comity. Passing weak health-care reform to keep Enzi and Grassley on board won't be a victory for health care or for Democrats. That is not to say that any improvement over the status quo should be rejected -- indeed, even the less controversial consumer-protection portions of reform promoted by the administration would be a major benefit. But a weak bill simply to appease Enzi is no excuse to constrain legislation that would stop the moral travesty of income-rationing 47 million Americans out of health insurance and decrease the long-term deficit, all in one fell swoop.

Just before recess, Grassley told reporters that 95 percent of the bill's provisions have been decided, saying only the most divisive issues remained (he declined to identify them). It's an interesting number, since Enzi is known for his "80/20" rule, a willingness to focus on the 80 percent of an issue where two sides agree. If Grassley was right in his estimation, then perhaps Enzi should already be on board. He told Politico last year that the solution to passing bills "isn't what you compromise on; it's what you leave out."

Wise words. If Enzi can't compromise, leave him out.

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