Grassley: No Longer Sure Bipartisan Health Deal Possible In September

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa indicated Thursday he was no longer sure whether negotiators can reach a bipartisan deal in September, citing mounting public concern about excessive government spending and soaring federal deficits.

Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee which is attempting to draft a bipartisan health care measure, said in a telephone interview from Iowa with Kaiser Health News, that he was struck by the intensity of  Iowans’ criticism of  the health care proposals and “fear” of excessive federal spending during several weeks of town hall meetings throughout his state.

Asked whether he thought the six Democratic and Republican negotiators on the committee would be able to cut a deal when Congress returns from its summer recess next month, Grassley replied: “If you asked me that on Aug. 6, I would have said yes, I think so, September. But you’re asking me on Aug. 27 and you’ve got the impact of democracy in America. Everybody’s showing up at town meetings.”

Grassley is part of the panel’s so-called “Gang of Six” trying to work out a health care overhaul bill providing health care coverage to most Americans through an expansion of Medicaid and the creation of new national health care insurance cooperatives and changes in insurance regulations. Many in his party are opposed to negotiating a major health care agreement with the Democrats this year, and Grassley was feeling heat from some Senate GOP leaders even before he returned home and heard complaints from angry Iowa voters.

The office of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., had no immediate comment on Grassley’s latest pronouncements.

In the interview, Grassley cited as a turning point in his thinking a report from the Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday showing that the federal government would be forced to borrow more than $9 trillion to underwrite President Obama’s initiatives and other federal programs over the coming decade. That projected federal budget deficit total was about $2 trillion more than previous estimates.

Since then, he said, he has heard widespread fears and complaints from Iowans about runaway spending. The concerns, he said, include the Democrats’ original proposals for spending as much as $1 trillion over the next 10 years to extend health care coverage to most Americans and to make major changes in the health care and insurance industries.

“If town meetings are going to mean anything, if democracy is going to mean anything, then you listen to your people and you act accordingly,” Grassley said. “When we go back in September it may not be the exactly the same way when we left on Aug. 6. So we’ve got a situation where there may be some change in direction. It could be dramatic or it could be just a little course correction.”

“But I think town meetings….in all 50 states [are] going to make a difference,” he added. “I think everything is going to be affected by what sort of difference these town meetings are making.”

Grassley said he believes that the large turnouts at public forums were prompted as much by concerns about the deficit as by dissatisfaction with the health care proposals.

“I think it’s a reason we’re having such big turnouts,” he said. “It’s not just the health care issue. I think health care is the straw that broke the camel’s back. I think we’ve got concern about the stimulus not working, big increases in appropriations, General Motors and banks being nationalized. A lot of fear out here.”

Earlier yesterday, he told a town-hall meeting in Le Mars, Iowa, that the soaring federal budget deficit “puts a stake in the heart” of some of the health care reform measures being debated in Congress, according to Bloomberg. Grassley also said he may not agree to a compromise on health care unless he is sure his state’s hospitals won’t be harmed.