Eyeing Baucus’ gavel?

EYEING BAUCUS’ GAVEL?…. As of today, probably the biggest hurdle standing in the way of health care reform is the Senate Finance Committee, or more specifically, the group of six centrist and center-right senators on the committee who are crafting a Republican-friendly proposal. The effort, like the committee, is being led by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, the not-at-all-liberal Democrat from Montana.

When it comes to health care, there are some strong Democratic voices on the Finance Committee, including John Kerry, Debbie Stabenow, Chuck Schumer, Maria Cantwell, and John Rockefeller, but they’re not invited to the negotiating table. It’s Baucus who’s in the lead, and it’s Baucus who won’t advance reform until he can win over some conservative senators.

Apparently, there are some senators who are wondering why Baucus has this much power, and what the caucus might do to change this.

In an apparent warning to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), some liberal Democrats have suggested a secret-ballot vote every two years on whether or not to strip committee chairmen of their gavels.

Baucus, who is more conservative than most of the Democratic Conference, has frustrated many of his liberal colleagues by negotiating for weeks with Republicans over healthcare reform without producing a bill or even much detail about the policies he is considering.

“Every two years the caucus could have a secret ballot on whether a chairman should continue, yes or no,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “If the ‘no’s win, [the chairman’s] out.”

Well, that’s certainly one way to get Baucus’ attention. “That’s a nice gavel you have there, Max. It’d be a shame if something happened to it.”

The chairman doesn’t seem especially concerned about pushback from Montana voters, but if it’s his Democratic colleagues who have his chairmanship in their hands, perhaps he’d be more amenable to his party’s agenda?

This seems to go beyond just Harkin. One senator, asked about a biennial referendum on committee chairs, told The Hill, “Put me down as a yes, but if you use my name I’ll send a SWAT team after you.”

Joe Lieberman, chair of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said he’d oppose such a proposal. That’s not too big a surprise — if it’s his gavel on the line with a secret-ballot vote from his colleagues, Lieberman might have to give up his chairmanship, too.

All the more reason to look favorably on the idea.