Will Republican Grassley Deal on Healthcare?

“This is the event all Presidential candidates wanted in the week before the Iowa caucuses, but couldn’t get.”  

A veteran Republican political activist from Iowa used those words to describe a town hall meeting held by Sen. Charles Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and now the pivotal GOP player in the ongoing debate over health care reform.  

The town meeting in Adel, the county seat of Dallas County, had to be moved from its original site at the town hall center to outdoors to accommodate the throng of 1,000 participants.  “They were lined up to get in down half a city block,” the activist told me, “and outside the meeting, there were four satellite trucks.”

With all the nationwide attention on Grassley and his role in negotiating with Senate Democrats in health care, it’s fair to ask: how is he doing with his own party and its conservative base?

A year before he is likely to seek a sixth term in the Senate, is it hurting Grassley (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 83%) to be simply sitting down with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.) and other Democrats to work out the details on health care reform?  Is there nervousness among the grass-roots that the 75-year-old Grassley might be “rolled” by Obama, Baucus, and Company on a health care package with a stronger government hand?  

Could the long-time senator even face a primary from the right next year — one which might wound him enough in the fall to make a Democratic challenge more formidable?

For the most part, Iowa Republicans I talked to said no on all three points.  Beginning with his initial election to the state legislature back in 1958, Grassley has moved from the state House of Representatives to the U.S. House and then to the Senate and never lost an election in his half-century career.  He is the inarguably the most durable politician in either party in Iowa, and it is difficult (if not impossible) to find anyone speculating on him having a tough race next year.

But speculation continues to build: what if Grassley makes a deal on healthcare?  Will he or won’t he?

Pence Says “Thank God We Have Grassley”

“[House GOP Conference Chairman] Mike Pence was out here for a fund-raising event for [Rep.] Steve King recently,” recalled Kim Schmett, Des Moines lawyer and former Polk County GOP Chairman, “He said ‘Thank god we have Chuck Grassley negotiating or we would have had a socialist bill on Obama’s desk ready to go before the August recess and it would be done with.’  That pretty much sums up the attitude of conservatives toward Chuck out here.”

Schmett has known Grassley since his discharge from the Army in the 1970’s and managed his last House re-election campaign in 1978.  He spoke to me while driving between some of the overflow town meetings held by the senator.  So far, Schmett said, Grassley has scheduled eighteen town meetings during the August break and held four of them in one day.  
“And nearly all of them have had to be relocated outdoors to handle the crowds that show up.” He added, “There is a little bit of hysteria — mostly from opponents of any changes in health care — but for the most part, the participants at the meeting are pretty respectable.”

Schmett’s view was seconded by Des Moines physician Greg Ganske, who served in the House from 1994-2002 and was the unsuccessful Republican Senate candidate in ’02.  Recalling Grassley’s packed meeting in Winterset (the hometown of John Wayne), Ganske said “Chuck handled it well. There were mostly anti-[Obama] health care plan people there but a few supporters of it from the union.”

Ganske believes that conservatives are coming around to admire Grassley because “Chuck has slowed down the process. Every time there is a major health care bill in Congress, they try to rush it through.  Thanks to Chuck, this didn’t happen and when it was slowed down, people started to read it and the opposition grew quickly.  The vast majority of physicians I know don’t like it.” (Ganske has actually read all 1000 pages of H.R. 3200, which the Congressional Budget Office concluded with increase the deficit by $239 billion over the next ten years; the physician-politician believes “it will be much more because CBO has a history of underscoring things”).

Grassley himself has repeatedly ruled out supporting a government-run (or “public option” program because he believes, as the the Des Moines Register’s political columnist John Carlson reported yesterday (August 19), “it’s a pathway to a government-run system.  And he thinks that is something for you, me, and especially grandma to fear.  Or at least be concerned about.”  

Opposition to a stronger government hand in health care is a particularly crucial issue with Iowa’s cultural conservatives.  In a state with a strong Roman Catholic and evangelical population, cultural conservatives pack a wallop within the GOP rank-and-file.  

In ruling out supporting public option, as Greg Ganske noted, “Chuck has given reassurance to a lot of people who were worried abortions were going to be mandated under the government option.”

To those on the right who were upset with Grassley over his votes for the Prescription Drug bill in ’03 and the No Child Left Behind federal education program, the senator’s stand on public option is in many ways a form of penance.

But Why Does He Have to Sit Down With Them?

But the very fact that Grassley is sitting down with Baucus and other Democrats makes some conservatives nervous.  

“There is a degree of concern that he is sitting at the table with the liberal Democrats,” Republican National Committeeman Steve Scheffler told me, “Some worry he will spend so much time with these guys that he’ll end  up voting for a bad bill.  But a lot of us also feel a little more comfortable because Chuck is there I think it’s not a bad thing we have Chuck there.  

There are some who still worry that a bad health care bill will be blamed on Grassley by conservatives and that he will face some kind of primary, that the candidate will draw 20% to 25% of the vote, that a wounded Grassley will then face a stronger-than-anticipated Democrat.

But for the most part, the worst-case-re-election scenario most Iowa Republicans envision for Grassley was best summed up the Register’s Carlson:  “He might end up getting only 65% of the vote instead of the usual 67% of 68%.”