MISSOULA — The key Senate Democrat who delayed health care reform last year while trying to get Republican buy-in is now facing the uncomfortable reality of his own prediction, leading him to weigh some bipartisan changes to his party's signature legislation.
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus' reputation as a dealmaker will be put to the test as he faces resurgent Republicans hostile to legislation that has been associated with him nearly as much as President Barack Obama.
The high-ranking Democrat, who has in the past drawn the ire of party faithful for seeking middle ground with Republicans, can't escape his prediction last summer that the health care bill needed GOP votes if it was going to last the years. At the time, liberals hammered him for trying to get Republicans on board.
"And I was right," Baucus said.
Baucus told The Associated Press in an interview Friday that unpopular provisions could be on the chopping block or subject to more negotiation due to the new Congress — perhaps even the personal mandate that Baucus still believes is needed to ensure charitable care isn't shifted onto others. On Friday, he unveiled legislation to strip a tax provision in the bill small businesses complained was burdensome.
Baucus maintains — even the better part of a year later — that voters hostile in large numbers toward the measure will warm to it as the lengthy list of provisions take effect. The bulk of the bill will last, he predicts.
The Republicans who seized control of the House in part by promising a repeal of health care overhaul won't be able to deliver on that promise because of the huge majority needed in the Senate to break parliamentary stalemates, Baucus said.
"That does not mean it shouldn't be changed, because it should be changed," Baucus said. "We are going to listen to the American people."
Out in independent-minded Montana, Baucus has heard no shortage of criticism over a provision that would require those who still don't have insurance after various program expansions take place in 2014 to purchase insurance through a government sponsored exchange.
"I can understand that. No one likes to be told what to do, especially in a state like ours," Baucus said.
But any changes made next year will require buy-in from Republicans. So will deals to reduce the deficit, or to reform the tax code to make it simpler.
Baucus told a group of business leaders Friday morning that party leaders will each have to agree to give a little. Right now, with angry Republican leaders looking to politically embarrass Obama such compromises seem unlikely.
"There is no reason not to try," Baucus said. "It's early, the election was just a week ago."
Montana Republican congressman Rep. Denny Rehberg is so far not talking about compromises. Just this week he told reporters that House Republicans want the full Bush tax cuts to remain in place — Baucus and other Democrats don't want to extend them for the wealthiest. Rehberg, speaking for many House colleagues, is adamant that spending need to be reduced to 2008 levels or less.
Baucus said his first meetings back in Washington D.C. will be with veteran Senate Republicans to see where a deal can be reached. He said he plans a phone call with Rehberg, who is climbing in seniority on the House appropriations committee. All sides will want to reduce the deficit and do what can be done to spur the economy, Baucus said.
The Democrat who even stood behind Bush at the signing of the 2001 tax cut bill is eager to help both sides cut another deal, even it that seems highly unlikely amid the current heat of a tea party-fueled debate.
Baucus said voters are clearly angry, casting an even darker shadow over bipartisanship that is hard in the best of times.
"It is going to be difficult to find cooperation," he said. "It's not going to be easy."