Has A Conservative Republican From Wyoming Taken Over The Health Care Debate In The Senate?

If it was up to reformers, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) probably wouldn’t be anywhere near the heart of health care negotiations. But unfortunately for them, he’s right in the middle of the action. Yesterday he said he’d vote against the legislation he’s helped craft in the Senate Finance Committee unless Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate guaranteed they wouldn’t make it any more liberal. And now he’s suggesting that, after months of delay, the committee probably won’t settle on a final product before adjourning for August recess at the end of next week.

Enzi’s access infuriates liberals–but in a way his presence at the negotiating table is emblematic of the Finance Committee’s entire process.

If after the Democrats’ historic election in November, I had suggested that one of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans would stand a chance of hijacking President Obama’s health care proposal, you might have waved off the threat, and rightly so. But thanks to Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus–who has insisted on passing a consensus bill at the expense of a number of liberal goals–that’s basically what’s happening.

Enzi, the ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, isn’t without health care knowledge–but he’s also not the sort of Republican who comes to mind when Democrats need a few Republicans to pass a major piece of legislation. He probably less in common with Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME) than do most Democrats. In fact, he vociferously opposed the HELP Committee’s reform bill, and is basically insisting that that bill, and House legislation, be completely scrapped before he and other conservatives hop on board. But despite that distinctly GOP-first outlook, Baucus gave him a seat at the table.Joining them are Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND). (Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT)–whose ties to industry are famous–also participated for a while, but ultimately left the negotations on his own.) Left out were public option point man Chuck Schumer (D-NY) health care expert Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), whose commitment to reform rivals that of ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and the liberals leading the effort in the House. All are members of the Finance Committee.

You probably wouldn’t expect such a right-tilted group to arrive at a progressive solution to the country’s health care crisis–and you’d be correct. But in the end, this all comes down to Baucus. As chairman of the committee, he committed to passing a bipartisan bill. Some viewed that move alone as a concession, but on a committee packed with moderate Democrats, it was arguably necessary. But as vague of a concept as bipartisanship is, it can mean almost anything when it comes time to vote. As with the stimulus, it can mean Democratic unity combined with the support of three moderate Republicans. And it can mean consensus, where members of both parties–in similar numbers, and of roughly balanced ideology–pass a bill at the expense of liberals and conservatives.

For some reason, Baucus went further than that, soliciting the blessing of deeply conservative Republicans, and no liberals. That doesn’t surprise his long time critics, but many still want to know, Why? An aide insists that none of the members of the coalition are supposed to fill specific niches–so we can only speculate. But whether it’s Enzi’s willingness to play along, or Baucus’ desire to burnish his bipartisan cred with a truly conservative Republican on board, or whether there’s some sympatico between the two western senators, the results have driven liberals to apoplexy.