11/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Baucus' Bill Not Bipartisan, But Panmedia

Senator Max Baucus has released (finally!) his Senate committee's healthcare reform bill. This was supposed to be the "bipartisan" bill, but the only way it can truly be referred to as "bipartisan" is in the growing bipartisan distaste for the bill. Which was not the intent. But, while the mainstream media has been borderline obsessive over Baucus and his Gang and his bill, the real question over Baucus' ultimate meaning to the healthcare reform debate is whether he'll be named to the conference committee between House and Senate whose purpose it will be to hash out the final language, and (if so named) what Baucus will do there.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Max Baucus has been hogging the media spotlight almost since this debate began this year. This may or may not be Baucus' fault to any degree, because the media is supposed to choose where to shine their spotlight -- meaning it may be all their fault instead.

Don't believe me? Quick, name the other four committee chairmen responsible for bills in the Senate and House. The easy answer to this (Ted Kennedy) was replaced, so that answer doesn't even count. You may recall one or two of these names, but none has been in the news anywhere near as much as Baucus.

Partly this is because they did their jobs in a timely manner. Instead of forming a Gang, they quietly worked out their bills and got them through their committees -- before the August break. Leaving Baucus alone on the stage for the past few months, which has certainly focused the attention on him.

Baucus' stated goal was to work with three Republicans and two other Democrats on his committee to work out a bill that both parties could support (or, for Republicans, "one or two moderates could support"). It was supposed to be all bipartisanshippy. But, halfway through the process, even the Republicans negotiating in the Gang of Six came out and said that they would vote against it -- even if their ideas were included and they thought it would be a good bill -- in fear of retaliation from members of their own party (or their party's voters). Meaning the entire exercise was pointless. Now, as the bill is released (finally!), not only the Republicans are denouncing the final product, but also Democrats -- some of whom actually serve on Baucus' committee. Meaning, as I said, Baucus has achieved what Stephen Colbert would doubtlessly call "bipartisanship-i-ness" -- the parties are uniting against it.

The media, however, loves it. Not the substance of the bill so much (since they're not big on substance anyway), but rather the obsession over this particular bill. They've been riding this story for months, and are about to go into withdrawal symptoms, since they won't have the Gang of Six to talk about any more (the media just loves "Gang of..." monikers, conveniently forgetting -- along with everyone else -- the term's origins in the Chinese "Gang of Four" which included Chairman Mao's wife). But the media will have to come to grips with the fact that now Baucus' bill (after his committee votes it out, probably within a week) is merely one of five. And even "one of two" in the Senate. Hopefully, this means the media will start objectively comparing the pros and cons of all the bills with plenty of facts, but I'm not going to hold my breath, personally.

Because Baucus' bill, up until now, has been the sole focus of the media. To be intellectually rigorous, since we use the Latin prefix "bi-" with "partisanship," we should come up with a Latin term for the media's obsession with Baucus, his Gang, and his bill. But, unfortunately, the closest I could come was "multimedia," which already has a whole other meaning. So instead, we must turn to the Greek, and call this tunnel vision "panmedia," since it has infected pretty much everyone in the business.

But -- even if Baucus' bill does become the foundation upon which a final healthcare reform bill is constructed (a premise I personally doubt) -- it still has three rounds of editing ahead of it. And the third one is the crucial one.

The first edit will happen within Baucus' own committee, as the other members offer amendments or other markup changes to the bill within their committee. Some of these may pass, but most will likely fail. We should know by this time next week, one way or the other.

The second round of editing happens when Baucus' bill is combined with the Kennedy committee bill so that the Senate can vote on a single piece of legislation. Once again, many amendments will be pushed, most of which will fail. But at this stage, the bill also faces filibuster threats, meaning that the whole thing may have to be rewritten as two bills, in order to use the reconciliation tactic to ram it through with only 50 votes (plus Vice President Biden, of course). The entire bill may drastically change, at this stage.

But the third and final edit is the most important, because that is where most such editorial hanky-panky occurs. Because after the House and the Senate pass a single bill, a conference committee is formed to iron out the differences between the two. Again, the bill can be entirely rewritten at this stage. Ideas can get tossed under the bus. Ideas which the bus has already run over, shifted into reverse, run over again, and then shifted back into drive to run over a third time (sorry, that metaphor just went on a bit too long, I know) -- such ideas have been known to magically come back to life at this stage. Conference committees are dangerous waters for any major legislation, because this is where the real horse trading takes place.

And the most important question -- before this committee even meets for the first time -- is: who will be on the committee? Harry Reid could at this point just outright refuse Baucus a seat on the conference committee. Or, knowing Harry Reid, he could go ahead and name Baucus to the committee. The full Senate can even vote on who is named to the conference committee, although this is rare. Most commonly, the senior members of the Senate committees involved in producing a bill get to sit on the conference committee. Meaning Baucus, unless an extraordinary effort is made against him, will indeed likely get a seat on the conference committee.

And when all is said and done on the healthcare reform efforts of 2009, this is where Baucus will either become the main story, or not. If Baucus is named to the committee and plays the obstructionist, he could singlehandedly kill the reform effort this year. Now, I'm not saying that that is what is going to happen, I merely point it out as a possibility based on Baucus' actions in the past few months. If this does become the case, then the entire summer's media obsession with Baucus will quickly be forgotten, due to him becoming an even bigger story. And, at that point (unlike now), the panmedia obsession with Baucus will be fully justified.


Chris Weigant blogs at: