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Max and me: Crossing Montana with Senator Baucus

There are only a few days left before Congress adjourns for summer recess, and Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, is in a familiar position: trying to craft a compromise on a huge piece of legislation that has divided Congress for years.

Sounds like a reference to the role of Sen. Max Baucus in crafting the health-care legislation that just passed the Senate Finance Committee? Well, no, actually it is one of the opening lines from a profile I wrote of Baucus seven years ago. The bill in question was aiming to lower barriers to free trade and give the president fast-track authority to reach such agreements with other nations. Sure, the current bid to achieve universal health insurance while reducing medical costs makes most other legislative initiatives seem like small potatoes. Still, Baucus’ latest effort reminded me of the four days I spent in 2002 following him across Montana for a story about him for his law school alumni magazine, Stanford Lawyer.

I sat in on one meeting he had at a hospital outside of Bozeman, in which he listened to its doctors and administrators talk at length about the arcane aspects of Medicaid and Medicare financing and the particular ways it hurt rural hospitals in Western states. The discussion was a veritable alphabet soup of wonky health-care lingo, and I was relieved when one of his aides admitted that it was a tough discussion to follow (Full disclosure: I was having problems staying awake). Baucus appeared to actually be enjoying it, and it was not easy for his staff to get him out of the room. That event didn’t make it into the story. Still, during that trip and from my additional reporting, I saw how Baucus could endure endless negotiations in his attempts to win concessions from Republicans (who in 2002 controlled the House of Representatives and the White House). Many Democrats were highly critical of the deals Baucus struck. The agreements he reached with the Bush administration on tax cuts, trade and an economic stimulus package, reflect a fiscal conservatism that informed the deal he just reached on his health-care bill. As the New York Times noted in a recent editorial, "It would do more to contain costs and restrain future deficits than any other bill under consideration."

I was doing the story on Baucus because in addition to his being a Stanford alum, he was targeted by Republicans early in 2002 as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate. One politico I interviewed called Democrats an “endangered species” in Montana and the rest of the Rocky Mountain west. Baucus handily won re-election that year. He is a political survivor who is going to continue to be a key player in health-care negotiations. A Times story reported that he was one of the three Senators at the table on Wednesday when senior White House officials came to the Capitol to discuss reconciling the different health-care bills. For anyone curious to learn more about the guy, my profile has some interesting nuggets, as well as a section on his years at Stanford. It’s available by downloading the Fall 2002 issue of Stanford Lawyer and going to the article that begins on page 14. For the PDF file, click here.

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