If there is a chance for health care overhaul it most likely exists in the politically charged space between a marathon runner from Montana and a former amateur boxer from Nevada, two Senate Democrats who occasionally sound like Republicans.
For better or worse, the burden to design a plan that provides health insurance to every American who seeks it without adding to the deficit — and that can get 60 votes in the Senate — is falling on Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and Majority Leader Harry Reid.
While President Barack Obama says failure is not an option, the solution to this quandary has eluded presidents and congressional titans past and may yet stymie the weathered partnership between the two conservative Democrats.
Reid, 69, and Baucus, 67, are deep in multidimensional and simultaneous negotiations taking place among senators of both parties, countless coalitions, interest groups, their own constituents and the White House.
"All these gyrations," as Reid put it, must produce a bill before the Senate recesses at the end of next week, a self-set deadline that theoretically would allow for floor debate this fall.
"I have a responsibility to get a bill on the Senate floor that will get 60 votes," Reid, who is up for re-election next year, told reporters Tuesday. "That's my number one responsibility and there are times when I have to set aside my personal preferences for the good of the Senate and, I think, the country."
Sixty is for later in the process. For the moment, Baucus is focused on a smaller number, six: specifically, three Democratic and three Republican members of Baucus' tax-writing Finance Committee. They are Democratic Sens. Baucus, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Olympia Snowe of Maine.
An agreement among them would represent a passing grade on the health care plan's first test of bipartisanship. Produce a bill, and senators can go home at the end of next week reporting some progress.
But the recess will be no vacation for the forces at work on health care, least of all Reid and Baucus. A message war will ensue, with Republicans demanding a rewrite and Democrats calling for patience. Aides will spend the summer break toiling over how to marry the Finance Committee bill with elements of a more partisan bill from the health committee.
At some point, Obama and Congress' Democratic leaders will have to decide whether compromise would mean the best chance for passage even at the risk of losing the support of their party's liberal base.
The next 10 days are pivotal. The onus to deliver is on Baucus and Reid.
"Their relationship is almost intentionally one of the checks and balances," said Sheila Burke, who was chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and now is a lecturer at Harvard University.
They are two hard-core political operators and stubborn personalities locked in a partnership that Reid described in his memoir as exhilarating during the Bush years when, then in the minority, they teamed to drive a stake into the Republican president's plan to privatize Social Security.
However, Reid's and Baucus' ideology can sometimes resemble that of Republicans more than the liberal bases of the Democratic party.
Reid, a grandfather of 16 and a Mormon, supports gun rights and has voted to limit access to some abortions.
"Harry has to carry a lot of that left-wing stuff, but he's really more moderate," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Baucus, who grew up on a ranch, has a son and is Protestant, has sided with Republicans on the Medicare prescription drug benefit and some of Bush's tax cut extensions.
"There is no one better at forging bipartisan consensus," Reid said of Baucus.
Their division of labor generally breaks down this way:
- Baucus is charged with leading the six senators through a closed-door search for a way to pay for various coverage schemes that might win Senate votes on each side of the aisle.
- Reid is focused on losing as few votes as possible from his caucus of 58 Democrats and two independents. The prospects of any plan winning all 60 of those votes are exceedingly slim, which is why Baucus' longtime partnership with Grassley, the senior Republican on his panel, is so crucial.
At a telling series of meetings on July 7, the math on where the votes were on Baucus' emerging deal prompted Reid to depart from his stated goal of empowering his chairmen to negotiate deals.
Reid's leadership team, including several members of the vote-counting whip organization, made it clear that Baucus' plan to pay for part of the overhaul by taxing health care benefits would cost 10 to 15 Democratic votes, mostly liberals. That happened to be a key element in Baucus' negotiations with Grassley, a proposal that might nail down support from the handful of Republicans needed.
At a second meeting, Reid relayed to Baucus the news that such a proposal would cost more than it would gain. Baucus pushed back, according to knowledgeable officials involved in the events, saying he was close to winning agreement from some Republicans. He was overruled, his ability to negotiate curtailed.
"As the leader, you want your chairmen to be independent, you want them to be strong," Burke said. "You want them to be able to do what they have to do to get (bills) through the committee. But your responsibility is really to the broader caucus."
Two weeks later, however, a variation to tax insurance companies on their high-cost, luxury health insurance plans is back on the table.
"This a process we're working through," Reid said.