Rockefeller throws a brush-back pitch at Baucus

ROCKEFELLER THROWS A BRUSH-BACK PITCH AT BAUCUS…. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) seemed to think he could thread the needle. He’d offer a right-leaning reform package that could pick up some Republican support, and keep Democrats more or less satisfied. His plan isn’t working.

This afternoon, shortly after Baucus said there’s a “very good chance” he’d get bipartisan support for his proposal, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Baucus’ plan still isn’t conservative enough to get GOP votes.

And what about progressive, pro-reform Democrats? The ones Baucus refused to include in the bipartisan negotiations? Baucus may have hoped his Democratic colleagues would simply go along, figuring his plan is better than nothing. Today, however, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), a strong supporter of a bold, ambitious reform package, was unambiguous.

“There is no way in present form I will vote for [Baucus’ proposal],” Rockefeller said. “Therefore, I will not vote for it unless it changes during the amendment process by vast amounts.”

Jonathan Cohn puts this in the larger context.

A little over a month ago, right before the August recess, I spoke with Rockefeller at some length. And he was clearly wrestling with how to position himself.

No living senator has done as much to promote health reform as he has. It’s the cause of his life and, for the first time, the goal is within reach. He admitted that voting against a package, even a flawed one, was difficult to imagine.

But Rockefeller also made clear his frustration with the compromises Baucus was making, whether it was replacing the public plan with a co-op or gradually reducing the subsidies to help people pay for insurance. He was particularly incensed about the changes to Medicaid and CHIP, programs on which he’s worked closely over the years.

It seemed like he was still on board, if only to help get a bill out of the Finance Committee and onto the Senate floor. But you got the feeling — well, I got the feeling — that was near the breaking point. Clearly, he’s now hit it.

The next step is some pretty intense wrangling. There’d be less, if only Baucus had bothered to talk about the proposal, even a little, with the Democrats on his own committee.

The Dems enjoy a 13-10 edge on the Finance Committee, suggesting Baucus doesn’t have a lot of leeway — if even a few Dems break ranks and reject his flawed proposal, Baucus would need some Republican votes to make up the difference, and as McConnell explained, that’s not likely to happen.

A few things to keep an eye on: how many (and what kind of) changes Baucus is willing to make to keep Dems on board; whether the leadership tells Rockefeller to pass Baucus’ plan now and they’ll fix it when it’s being reconciled with the HELP bill; whether Rockefeller gets Democratic allies to force Baucus’ hand (and how many); whether Snowe gets on board with Baucus’ plan; and whether Harry Reid considers just circumventing the Finance Committee altogether, moving the HELP bill to the floor with a bunch of amendments.