CASPER - Under fire from Democrats and even some Republicans for his role in potential reform of the nation's health care system, U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi remains willing to work on a bipartisan plan, his spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Enzi, R-Wyo., is a member of the so-called "Gang of Six," a group of Senate Finance Committee members who have played a key role in shaping possible health care reform. The group is scheduled to hold a conference call Friday to try again to reach common ground on a health care bill that could win broad support in the full Senate.
On Tuesday, White House senior adviser David Axelrod suggested that Enzi and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, have not acted in good faith on the issue. Axelrod was responding to statements by the two senators, including Enzi's speech in delivering the GOP's weekly national address on Saturday, in which they sharply criticized Democratic health reform bills.
Their remarks, Axelrod said, "were not exactly consistent with good-faith negotiations."
Wyoming Democrats echoed that criticism Wednesday, charging that Enzi has "caved" to Republican leaders on health care reform and now advocates gutting the legislation.
"It was incredibly disappointing when he came out this weekend and he not only said he would work to gut the bill, but he misled the people of Wyoming on what was in the bill and what was being worked on," said Wyoming Democratic Party Chairwoman Leslie Petersen. "I just can't express sincerely enough how disappointed we are."
But Enzi spokeswoman Elly Pickett said the senator's statements - including assertions that Democratic proposals would restrict medical choices and make the country's "finances sicker without saving you money" - are consistent with what he has said all along.
"Repeating that you don't agree with plans put together solely by one side doesn't mean you aren't willing to work together on a different plan. He is. He has been doing that," Pickett said.
During an appearance in his hometown of Gillette last month, Enzi also drew fire from some for even being willing to negotiate with Democrats over health care. His response was one of his favorite sayings: "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu."
The White House announced Wednesday that President Barack Obama will deliver a major prime-time health care address to Congress next week, before the Sept. 15 deadline the president had given the "Gang of Six" to draft a plan. That suggests that top Democrats have all but given up hope for a bipartisan breakthrough by the group.
But spokeswomen for Enzi and Grassley said they're committed to continued negotiations, in spite of Grassley's recent statement that Democratic-drafted bills would be "a pathway to a government takeover of the health care system." In an August fundraising letter, Grassley also asked for "support in helping me defeat Obama-care."
Grassley spokeswoman Jill Kozeny said Grassley was simply restating his well-known opposition to a government-run health insurance plan.
"Attacks by political operatives in the White House undermine bipartisan efforts and drive senators away from the table," Kozeny said. "Anyone who's working on an alternative plan - one that would actually drive down costs and not drive up the deficit - knows how difficult the issues are."
Pickett said Enzi is committed to bipartisan health care reform, but the constituent feedback he's getting opposes a government insurance option to compete with private options.
"They want to start fresh, and they want to have health care reform that doesn't include a government-run option. And he agrees with that," she said.
She also said Enzi doesn't think the legislation so far has been bipartisan. He would prefer to have a bill pass the Senate with 75 or 80 votes, she said.
"To him, bipartisan doesn't mean one or two votes from the other side of the aisle," she said.
In his regular news conference Wednesday, Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal said he didn't think Enzi's statements in the GOP radio address Saturday signaled a shift in the senator's approach to the issue.
"I didn't hear anything in it that I hadn't heard before. Now, clearly there was some political timing in it, and that's fine, that's just theater. But in terms of the substance of where he's at, I don't think he's in any different position than he's said he was in from the beginning," the governor said.
"There is discussion about whether or not they'll come back and work some kind of a deal - my guess is, if it's within the ambit of what he believes is right, he'll probably support it. If he doesn't believe it's right, he's not going to support it. I'm having a little trouble with all of the drama about it," Freudenthal said.