- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

Max Baucus just might be Washington’s most in-demand person in 2009 not named Obama.

Max Baucus just might be Washington’s most in-demand person in 2009 not named Obama.

Requests for speaking engagements have poured into his office in recent months. He is a sought-after guest on television news shows. And he is a no stranger at the White House.

Tasked with drafting the president’s promise to overhaul the nation’s health care system by the end of the year, the Montana Democrat and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee has had time to concentrate on little else.

“I’ve served in the Senate for 30 years, and this is the hardest legislative challenge of my lifetime,” Mr. Baucus told the National Business Group on Health’s Washington conference on Wednesday.

But the chairman, whose committee essentially controls Congress’ checkbook by holding jurisdiction over tax issues, said he relishes the opportunity to ensure that every American is covered by a health care plan.

“This is fun — this is the kind of work for which I signed on,” he said. “This is the kind of job that made me ask the people of Montana to hire me in the first place.”

Mr. Baucus isn’t the only muscle behind the health care push. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the chairman of the Senate Heath, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has been a leading advocate for health care reform for decades. No final plan will be presented without significant input from the Massachusetts Democrat.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry A. Waxman, whose committee has jurisdiction in the chamber over writing health care policy, also will play an important role in crafting legislation.

But the Senate, not the House, is taking the lead in drafting a health care reform package, leaving Mr. Waxman as a key — but not the key — player on the issue.

And with Mr. Kennedy away from Capitol Hill for most of the past year receiving treatment for brain cancer, Mr. Baucus is now the principle field general for the Obama administration’s push to overhaul the health care system — Washington’s number one priority this year.

Mr. Baucus, one of the most approachable senators and a man who rarely shakes off a reporter’s question, is publicly modest about his responsibilities, dismissing the notion that he has become the public face of the health care reform movement.

“I don’t know — all I’m saying is I really care about this, and I’m just trying to accomplish health care reform this year,” he said. “It’s my passion.

“There are others who care as deeply as I, but I care deeply, too.”

The final cost of health care reform for the time being is anyone’s guess. The president has pledged to spend at least $634 billion on health care issues during the next 10 years, although his budget director, Peter R. Orszag, last week called the figure only a “significant down payment.”

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