That was then. In August, Grassley who is up for re-election next year held town halls and constituent meetings in 30 counties. While the sessions never got as raucous as they did in some other parts of the country, Grassley's constituents turned out by the thousands to tell him how little they thought of his efforts back in Washington. One sign in the small town of Adel read "Thank God Patrick Henry Did Not Compromise." Over the course of the recess, Grassley began sounding less like a potential Obama ally and more like the enemy army. When the Iowa Senator actually gave credence to the absurd notion that the House version of the legislation might allow the government to decide when, in his words, to "pull the plug on Grandma," Democrats decided he was past the point of any hope. And then came Grassley's late-August coup de grâce, a campaign fundraising letter. "The simple truth is that I am and always have been opposed to the Obama Administration's plans to nationalize health care," Grassley wrote. "Period."
So much for bipartisanship. Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi, another participant in the Finance Committee talks, has all but abandoned the notion of reaching a deal with the Dems. With Grassley bailing out too, the only Republicans who might side with the Democrats now are Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins though their GOP street cred is undercut by the fact that they were also the only current Republicans to vote for Obama's economic-stimulus package. Some Democrats now wonder whether Grassley had been toying with them and particularly his good friend Baucus from the start. One joked that Baucus needs to see the movie He's Just Not That into You.
Then again, Grassley, who will be 76 this month, has always been a free spirit. He still lives in the Butler County precinct where he was born, farming 710 acres of corn and soybeans with his son and making a point of holding at least one meeting a year in each of the state's 99 counties. Ever thrifty, he coasts his 13-year-old Lincoln (bought used, of course) down the ramp to his spot in the Hart Senate Office Building garage to save on gas. As a Senator, he bucked President Bush to work with Baucus and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the State Children's Health Insurance Program in 2007. He has also championed government whistle-blowers and launched probes into the tax status of (GOP friendly) Evangelical preachers. That independence helps explain why he is easily Iowa's most popular politician, winning re-election four times. "Everybody trusts Chuck in Iowa," says former Iowa Congressman Jim Leach.
Yet Grassley is not immune to the pressures from his party. Iowa Republicans have been trending rightward; socially conservative Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee won last year's presidential caucuses there. Opposition groups have been running ads in the state criticizing Grassley for his role in the health-care negotiations, and back in Washington, Senate GOP leaders have made no secret of their anxiety about it. "Senator Grassley has been given no authority to negotiate anything by all of us Republicans on that committee," said Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate GOP whip. What's more, Grassley's term as ranking Republican on the powerful tax-writing panel will expire at the end of 2010; he stands to assume that spot on the Judiciary Committee, but the Republican leadership could block him from getting it. Things have become so uncomfortable for Grassley at times that he has mused privately about retiring, telling colleagues, "Maybe I should just go home and ride my tractor."
In an interview on Sept. 1, Grassley said, "I've gotten pleadings that we're helping the Democrats get a bill." But, he insisted, "my posture has been to take to the table things that my caucus has said they want health-care reform to be or not be." Among the demands that Grassley says he has made that reflect his commitment to conservative orthodoxy: no rationing of health care, no government-run public option to compete with private insurance, no requirement that employers provide health coverage and an insistence that malpractice lawsuits be curbed.
But if Grassley has been clear about what he doesn't want to see in a bill, Democrats have had a harder time getting a fix on what he might accept. Take his often repeated criticism of the public option: Obama expected it to come up during a private meeting with Grassley last spring and was prepared to explore a compromise, according to a source who is familiar with what happened. Instead, Grassley failed to even mention it, leaving it to Obama to bring up the matter and his top aides to wonder what Grassley's real agenda was.
Grassley has the upbeat, Hawkeye stubbornness that Meredith Willson, who hailed from the county next to the Senator's, made famous in The Music Man. He is one of the few people still arguing that a grand bipartisan deal is possible though he suggests that the way to get there is through a Democratic surrender. "There's a feeling that the only way to get a bipartisan agreement is to defeat a Democratic proposal on the first hand, and then the Democrats will come to Republican leadership, and then, at that point, they'll know the only way they're going to get health-care reform is bipartisan," he recently told Iowa reporters.
The Democrats, no surprise, have different ideas. In fact, party leaders are ready to write Grassley and the Republicans out of their plans for action in September and October. "If we can't do a bipartisan bill, we can do a partisan bill," says Senate majority leader Harry Reid. That may be harder than it looks. Though Democrats control Congress, it takes 60 votes to get past a filibuster in the Senate; with the death of Ted Kennedy, they have only 59. And holding the Democrats' own ranks is getting dicier, given the sinking poll numbers for both Obama and his health-reform effort particularly among women and voters over 65, who worry that Washington's fixes will only hurt the quality of the care they've got.
There are procedural ways to get around the 60-vote hurdle, but going that route with a bill as big and complicated as health-care reform would take the Senate Democrats into dark, uncharted parliamentary territory. Among the options they are considering are cutting the bill into pieces and ultimately passing a smaller and less ambitious measure. That, however, sets up a clash with the more liberal House.
In this ugly landscape, the White House has come to realize that the President himself is going to have to play a more forceful and direct role and soon, including an address to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 9. Rather than leaving the legislative sausagemaking up to Congress, allies say, Obama will have to become far more specific about what he wants to see in a bill. He must spell out, for instance, precisely what he means by a public option, an issue that has grown to outsize proportion as an ideological flash point. The President may also need to declare whether he would be willing to sign a bill without one.
Grassley believes the raucous town meetings of August made it clear that Obama now faces something far larger than mere doubts about health-care reform. "I was expecting a lot of anger, but what really surprised me about the town meetings was the fear that people were expressing afraid for the country. Health care was a big issue, yes, and it took up most of the questions at the town meetings. But it seemed to me it was the straw that broke the camel's back. People were bringing up the stimulus bill not doing any good and [costing] $800 billion. Or the Federal Reserve shoveling $2 trillion out of an airplane and not seeing it does any good. And the nationalization of banks and [General Motors]."
Fear, Grassley argues, is part of the process too. "Democracy is at work," he says. "The public hearings have had an impact. Exactly to what extent? I'll have to get back [to Washington] and talk to my colleagues." The question is whether anyone on either side is still willing to listen.