Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa — the top Republican negotiator in the “Gang of Six,” the group of Senate Finance Committee members that is trying to hammer out bipartisan health-care legislation — tells NRO that he’s losing patience with Democrats, who earlier this week signaled that they were ready to abandon hopes for a compromise. “I won’t walk away,” Grassley says, “but if I’m pushed away, I’ll be on the Senate floor trying to kill bad amendments and get good amendments adopted.”
Speaking by phone from Iowa, Grassley says the town-hall meetings held across America during the August recess have changed the nature of the debate. Grassley himself held four town halls last week and is preparing to host 16 more next week. At his town halls, Grassley found himself showered with cheers — instead of the jeers that so many of his colleagues have faced. “I never got a drumbeat,” he recalls. “Iowans are very civil.” Reflecting on how his town halls have influenced his position on health-care reform, Grassley says “the jury is out” on whether he might leave the negotiating table. “I’ll make a decision on walking away if it becomes clear that I can’t get a good agreement.”
“It’s clear to me — not just on health-care, but on a lot of things — that my constituents are very scared about what the future holds, mostly related to the massive amount of federal debt that’s out there and its legacy,” Grassley says. When he stands before Iowans, Grassley laments, he “can give them almost total satisfaction on almost anything they ask about” — except health care. “We don’t have anything on paper out of all the talking we’ve done on health care. I can tell them that there’s a Pelosi bill, and I’d vote against that. I can tell them there’s a Kennedy bill, and I’d vote against that. We’re not going to have a public option coming out of Finance.” Tort reform, he added, is one subject on which he hopes the gang will spend more time in the coming weeks.
The health-care debate, says Grassley, now looks “kind of like the straw that broke the camel’s back” for American voters. Citing the federal government’s takeover of General Motors and the fact that “the stimulus is not working,” Grassley suspects that Americans may be getting the sense that “maybe the administration doesn’t know what it’s doing” — and they’re fed up.
As for the “Gang of Six,” Grassley says they are “assessing this thing every day.” He has not spoken with Maine Republican senator Olympia Snowe, another gang member, since they both left Washington. He adds, “I don’t know about the Democrats at this point, though I sense Senator Baucus is probably having more problems from his left, which means 40 Democrats, than I am from the right.”
Conservatives, Grassley said, shouldn’t worry about their values being forgotten even if he is “sitting at the table” with Democrats. “I’m in the room, I know what’s going on — don’t they want to know what’s going on? Since January, from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., any Republican in the Senate that wanted to meet with me — or Senators Enzi or Snowe — to discuss health-care could do so. We’re in a task force on health care to report and to listen. Our group’s work with Senator Baucus and the Democrats enables Republicans to know exactly what’s going on with health-care discussions across the aisle.”
So what are the make-or-break issues for Grassley moving forward? Grassley says there are four: no public option, no rationing, no government bureaucrats getting between doctors and patients, and tort reform.
What about non-profit cooperatives, which have gained steam this week as a possible point of compromise between Republicans and the Obama administration. As a Midwestern senator, Grassley said he’s all for them — if done correctly.
“I don’t think a lot of senators have an understanding of the 150-year history of cooperatives in the United States,” he said. “They’re basic to the economy of the Midwest. Those of us who have an understanding of them know that they’re consumer-run, with all the benefits going to consumer members. There is no federal control over them. There is no government control over them any more than the control states have over other health-care issues. I see them as an opportunity to enhance health-care competition — just as cooperatives do in other areas of the economy.”