In an interview with KHN’s Eric Pianin, Republican Grassley says his his long-standing alliance with Democratic Finance Committee Chairman Baucus remains strong despite political pressure but won’t influence his decision on whether to support bipartisan health care legislation.
Eric Pianin: Hello, Senator.
Sen. Charles Grassley: Eric, I’m glad to communicate with you.
EP: There’s been a lot written and said about your various comments about health care reform during the August recess and what they suggest about where you think things are headed in negotiating a bipartisan bill. Have you changed your thinking about the emerging bill since you returned home to Iowa earlier this month and heard from constituents?
CG: I haven’t said anything different out here than I said the last four or five months that I’ve been discussing bills with Senator Baucus. To give you an example, on that end-of life stuff, I informed the Finance Committee back in March that we shouldn’t be doing anything like getting the government involved in end-of-life decisions. In mid-July, at least in the staff level, there was already agreement we weren’t going to do that. Now the only thing is, I think if town meetings are going to mean anything, if democracy is going to mean anything, then you listen to your people and you act accordingly. So, I think that you’re finding the situation out here a little more fluid, and when we go back in September, it may not be exactly the same way when left on August 6th. So, we’ve got a situation where there may be some change of direction; it could be dramatic or it could be just a little course correction.
EP: One thing that has changed, of course, is the new projections of deficits and debt over the next ten years. And apparently, you’ve been hearing a lot from your constituents about that. Could that affect your thinking about the size and scope of this bill?
CG: I think so, I couldn’t quantify that for you, but I think it’s a reason we’ve been having such big turnouts. It’s not just the health care issue; I think health care is the straw that broke the camel’s back. I think we’ve got concern about the stimulus not working, big increases in appropriations, General Motors and banks being nationalized. There’s a lot of fear out here. My last town meeting, I had a lot of emotion expressed at it about the future of the country. Somebody carrying their young son in their arms and saying “I want this country to be what I’ve known it as, and so my kid can live in a country like I did.”
EP: You and your longtime friend and committee colleague, Senator Baucus, have been through a lot of tough negotiations over the years on health care, tax, and trade measures. And often, you’ve managed to stick together, despite pressure from all sides. Now we hear that you and Senator Baucus are both under enormous pressure from your parties and party leaders to abandon bipartisanship, which would mean, of course, the Democratic leadership going its own way. Is this an accurate picture of what’s going on? If not, what is the situation?
CG: I think it’s an accurate picture to say that both parties would try to discourage us, but I think that we have held the position since January that we’re affecting one-sixth of the economy and that we’re affecting life or death issues with every American. That it should be done in a broad bipartisan way, and that’s lots of Republicans and lots of Democrats, and not necessarily all Republicans and all Democrats.
EP: As you say, you’ve been making this point for quite a while, that, before you could support a bipartisan overhauling of the health care system, there has to be 70 to 80 Democrats and Republican senators behind it. That might have been a worthy goal early in the year, but with Senate Republican leaders, including Mitch McConnell and Senator Kyl, adament in their opposition, doesn’t that goal now seem a little out of reach or the bar set a little too high?
CG: When you have four different republican bills in and then you have one Republican, Senator Bennett, working with another Democrat, there’s a lot of Republican ideas out there, which implies to me that there are a lot of Republicans out there who feel we should have some changes in the health care system.
EP: Clarify a point for us have you been criticized by some in the Republican leadership for persisting in search of a bipartisan deal?
CG: Not to my face, but I think to my back, I have.
EP: If you concluded that the Republican conference was overwhelmingly opposed to what comes out of the Finance Committee ‘Gang of Six’ talks, could you still support it if you thought it was the right bill?
CG: Well, my job is to, first of all, get a document that I think a large share of the Republicans will buy into. And if I fail in that, I’ve failed.
EP: How would you characterize your working relationship with Senator Baucus?
CG: Just ideal, number one. Number two, I would characterize it as ‘how we get things done.’ Neither one of us are running for president. We’ve come from similar constituencies, and in this particular instance, we’re working together, because we’re trying to write a bill that majorities of both parties can support.
EP: But in the final analysis, will that relationship influence your final decision? How important is that? If not, what will be the most important factors?
CG: If your question is: “Will either Baucus or Grassley arrive at a compromise just because we’re friends,” the answer is “no.” The product is what we’re working on. And bipartisanship doesn’t result just because we have a good working relationship; it works because we’re able to work things out.
EP: Have you and Senator Baucus had any conversations about your town hall comments? Was there anything that needed to be clarified or straightened out in your relationship?
CG: No, none whatsoever. We have had three or four conversations over the last three weeks, but it’s kind of gone like, “How have your town meetings gone? How have your town meetings gone?” And we kind of give people our analysis so we kind of know what’s going on in our respective states. Maybe some conversation about the impact of all of this on the debate in Washington after September 8th, and until we get back and commune with some of our other colleagues and maybe get an analysis from 535 members of Congress instead of two, we won’t really know what the impact is.
EP: So how would you characterize the relationship now? The same as ever? A little frayed around the edges?
CG: Between Senator Baucus and I, nothing has changed. And I can say, nothing would be changed if at this point we both acknowledged we couldn’t agree.
EP: What will test that relationship the most in the months ahead?
CG: Nothing tests the relationship. What’s tested is if we can produce a product that we both agree on.
EP: Do you think you’ll be able to cut a deal?
CG: I think that it’s too early to say. If you had asked me on August 6th, I’d say, “Yes, I think so, September.” But you’re asking me on August 27th, and you’ve got the impact of democracy in America.
EP: Senator Grassley, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.
CG: OK, thank you.