Top Republican senators involved in crafting health care reform legislation participated in a health care-specific fundraiser Monday evening. Guests were asked for a $2,000 contribution to the National Republican Senatorial Committee to attend a "Roundtable on Healthcare Issues" -- and $5,000 for both the roundtable and dinner with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).
The nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation cited the event for its upfront offer of special-interest access. All three senators sit on key health committees. Grassley is the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, currently embroiled in negotiations with Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) over the pending reform bill. Enzi sits on the Finance Committee and serves as ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, of which Burr is a member as well.
The Huffington Post visited the event in its continuing quest to cover lobbying as it happens in real time. An NRSC staffer said the event was closed to reporters. Asked if we could gain entrance for $2,000, the staffer reiterated that the event was closed.
Also on the scene: Producer Jeremy Young and cameraman Eric Barreda of Al Jazeera English's Fault Lines program, there to interview arrivals for a spot on health care reform.
"We've been spending several weeks chasing the process and the most difficult part is to actually see the millions of dollars being spent," Young told the Huffington Post. "So we picked this event to see fancy cars pull up, to see people spending between $2,000 and $5,000 in order to have access to senators that are crafting health care policy."
The close-to-the-Capitol venue, Charlie Palmer Steak, is a favorite for fundraisers and a good place to see a few fancy cars and Washington celebrities. The menu offers $20-per-ounce Japanese Wagyu beef and the wine list has bottles that go for $1,000. On Monday evening, such luminaries as former White House press secretary Dana Perino could be seen at the bar enjoying a glass of wine.
The senators avoided Al Jazeera's camera by using an alternate entrance, but some guests who walked by were kind enough to speak on the record, including Ed Lenz of the American Staffing Association. Lenz said he was hoping to get a sense from the senators of what was happening with the bill.
"It's part of our system. It's part of free speech," he said. "There are people from all walks of life and all strata of society who have opportunities to have their voices heard."
Dr. Lawrence Gelman, the CEO of a 500-bed hospital in McAllen, Texas (the town featured in a famous New Yorker article for the disproportionate amount of health care spending there), called the bill a "sham" that will "try and strangle the private sector and give us a health care system run by the government."
Young asked Gelman what he thought of the pay-to-play lobbying scheme in which he was participating.
"The system is the way that the system is. I'm not sure that I can help that. I am only here because I feel that I have an expertise," Gelman said. "I don't want to sound bragging, but the fact of the matter is that I have expertise, a lot more than other people, and I'm trying to get my voice heard, if that's what it takes to get my voice heard... I didn't make the game, I didn't create it. But our congressmen and senators are open, but the fact is that there are millions and millions of people and I wish I had a better answer for that."
Young told the Huffington Post that he'd done some traveling to get his piece together, a 30-minute special set to air a week from the Thursday. "We went to Tennesseee to see rural health clinics in Appalachia and spent lots of time speaking to people who don't have access to people in power, people who don't have insurance, who can't afford to see the dentists, people who can't afford to see their primary care physician," Young said. "There's such a massive contrast ... when it comes to having so much money to spend on the game that is health care reform going on right now."
NRSC staffers kept their eyes on Huffington Post reporters sitting at the bar outside the two-and-a-half hour event. Upon leaving, Lenz had little to say about the meeting other than that he "hoped" the Obama agenda could be derailed.
"Charlie Palmer's is always great," he said.
Another attendee leaving the event said, "I know you've been waiting out here for material." Asked for the gist of what the senators said, she replied, "they want to work till they get it right....They're willing to work through the August recess."