Published August 15, 2009
BELGRADE, Mont. - By making a rare presidential visit to Montana, Barack Obama has put even more pressure on the rural state's senior senator, Max Baucus, and his panel to produce bipartisan health care legislation in just a month's time.
The president's Friday town hall in a conservative suburb of Bozeman allowed him to speak directly to Baucus' constituents -- the same people who are already giving the senator an angry earful during the congressional August recess.
It also allowed the two Democrats to show solidarity, even as significant policy differences remain.
The White House supports Baucus' bipartisan effort in hopes of crafting a bill with broader appeal, although Baucus has been given just a month to finish the job.
During the town hall, Obama brought up one of the biggest differences he is likely to have with the bipartisan plan that comes out of the Senate Finance Committee. Obama defended the "government option" he favors -- one that Baucus so far doesn't -- that would let those without private health insurance buy into a plan like Medicare.
"And not everybody, not even every Democrat, agrees on the public option, but I just want at least people to be informed about what the debate is about," Obama told the crowd of about 1,300 people. "The only point I want to make about this is whether you're for or against a public option, just understand that the public option is not a government takeover of health insurance."
Congressional colleagues have been increasingly frustrated with Baucus as he tosses aside liberal ideas like the government option, in favor of carving out a compromise with Republicans.
For his part, Baucus doesn't appear worried that a bipartisan group of six senators has already blown through several targets for producing a Finance Committee bill. The veteran senator has told Obama that "it will be ready when it's ready" -- even if that means waiting until September.
Baucus said he met with the president Friday to discuss overall strategy. He said his bipartisan panel and the president all agree on the big picture -- getting health insurance for almost everyone, controlling costs and doing so in way that can clear Congress.
"We're on the same page, the president and I," Baucus said in an interview after the event.
Baucus added that he thinks the president will support his panel's final bipartisan product.
The senator said the president's visit was as much about a Saturday trip to Yellowstone National Park as it was about holding a town hall on Baucus' home turf.
Baucus said the president has been calling him almost daily to get progress reports.
Baucus also has close ties to the White House: his former chief of staff, Jim Messina, is now Obama's deputy chief of staff. Both Messina and Baucus have said they maintain a tight relationship.
The president has publicly been supportive of Baucus' efforts to draft a bipartisan plan, although the White House has sought to speed it up with a threat to bypass it altogether. Some Republican support for the final measure would make it much easier for conservative Democrats to support it.
"I suspect that one reason Obama is coming out here is to persuade him, persuade Montanans, that is the way to go," said Craig Wilson, a political science professor and pollster at Montana State University-Billings.
Wilson said he doubts a government-run health insurance program is very popular in Montana and that the president could rally more people to support such a notion and put more pressure on Baucus.
Obama has shown a great deal of interest in Montana. As a candidate, he visited the state five times -- and spent more time and money in Montana than previous presidential candidates. Still, he fell just short of carrying a state that has a tradition of solidly backing Republicans at the top of the ticket.
Back home for August, Baucus has already been hit with protesters from the left who want a government-run plan and opponents from the right who don't want any of the expensive reform plans.
Earlier in the week, Baucus waded into a cantankerous group of shouting protesters, trying to assure them no form of the overhaul would give the government power to make medical decisions for consumers.
Montana coordinators for Patients First, affiliated with the Americans for Prosperity activists that came together during the "Tea Party" anti-big-government protests, say the state is an important battleground in the health care debate due to Baucus.
About 1,000 people, including opponents and supporters of reform and advocates for various plans, protested outside the town hall meeting at the Gallatin Field Airport hangar. Those on the far left who want a single-payer, government-run system had one thing in common with the self-described "Tea Party" conservatives against any reform: neither likes Baucus' plan that heavily modifies the current system.
"We think of it as a gift to the for-profit insurance companies," said single-payer advocate Linda Kenoyer, of Livingston.
Conservative Mike Dunlap, who is from Amarillo, Texas, but working in Helena, said his assessment is easy: "I'm totally against all of it."
The Coalition to Protect Patient Rights, a group of doctors who oppose a government option and so far like Baucus' bipartisan plan, is targeting Baucus, too.
"We believe that Baucus and history have crossed, and there is a tremendous opportunity," said Dr. James Jarrett of Missoula. "I think this committee of six that he has there is the only demonstrable effort in D.C. to have a statesman, bipartisan approach."
Montana last saw a presidential visit in 2005 when George W. Bush held a much smaller closed-audience town hall in Great Falls to drum up support for his failed Social Security Overhaul. Baucus was an important figure in that debate, too.
But unlike 2005 when Baucus was across town from the president, holding his own event against that reform effort, he was showing unity with Obama.
"Baucus is certainly a key player, if not perhaps the single most important player," said Wilson, the political scientist. "Obama by coming to Montana is, in essence, acknowledging it."