Grassley, Moynihan, Health Care and the Missed Opportunity

If you care about health care, you have to care about the Senate Finance Committee. It’s the choke point for any health care legislation. Make it work there in a bipartisan way and you’ll get health care. Fail there and kiss it goodbye–again.

One of the tragedies of the Clinton-era effort to reform health care is that Pat Moynihan, then the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over health care, was eager to promote some kind of health care deal with Bob Dole, the Senate minority leader at the time, who had expressed interest in finding a deal. That’s why it is so encouraging at the moment that Charles Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, is working on a health care proposal with Max Baucus, the committee’s chairman.

If they can come up with something health care has a much better chance of passage. If they can’t, it’s hard to imagine health care passing. Such is the importanxw of the Senate Finance Committee.

So I was surprised to see last week, after the health care summit with all its bonhomie and the president’s encouaging words for the Baucus-Grassley effort, this item on March 5 about the administration canceling an effort at collecting back taxes. The effort used private companies to collect back taxes and was fought heavily by the union representing Treasury workers. TIm Geithner called Grassley on Friday evening to announce that he was putting the kibosh on the program which happened to cost 60 jobs in Iowa. A source close to Grassley says he’s still “very unhappy” about the cancellation although, thank goodness, Geithner, understaffed and overwhelmed, managed to make the call. Grassley would surely had been more angry if he’d read it in the papers.

Leaving aside the merits of the debt collection program, one would think that with so much at stake on health care, the administration would be going out of its way to court and soothe Grassley. Granted, Grassley is not the vindictive sort who would hold up health care because of 60 jobs in Waterloo, but a move like this can’t help relations. (Some senators are more mercurial. In 1993, the Clinton administration punished Sen. Richard Shelby, then a Democrat, for not supporting it on a number of issues by moving some NASA jobs from Huntsville, AL to Houston. It was one of the factors in Shelby converting to the GOP in 1994.)

Let’s hope the administration is working a charm offensive on Grassley in other ways. Grassley and Baucus are working on their bill now and hope to have some kind of mark up by June although that’s not realistic, one staff member told me. So let’s see where it goes from here.

For those who want to follow Grassley, I highly recommend his Twitter account. Note the entry complete with original misspellings and abbreviations: “Geithner call to tel me he’s cancling 60 jobs in Wloo. No renewal of contract to collect bk taxes. Vry disapted”

Let’s hope he doesn’t stay dissapointed