August 29, 2012


The Last Bipartisan (BILL KELLER, August 26, 2012, NY Times)

Nowadays, Wyden is like the Amur tiger or the ivory-billed woodpecker -- if not the last of his breed, at best a very endangered species. Still, he persists in cornering colleagues who would disagree with him 95 percent of the time -- Judd Gregg, Dan Coats, Darrell Issa, Marco Rubio, Scott Brown, Paul Ryan -- and engaging them on the 5 percent where they might get something done. On tax reform, copyright protection, Internet freedom, education and especially health care, Wyden has found unlikely partners from the other side. These joint ventures rarely get adopted wholesale, but interesting elements find their way into the debate, and into the law. A fairly typical example: Wyden and Brown, the Massachusetts Tea Party favorite, designed an amendment to the Affordable Care Act that lets states opt out if they can provide equivalent benefits and quality of care some other way. After much Democratic harrumphing, President Obama bought it. (Coming as he does from a relatively progressive and inventive state, Wyden is more open than many Democrats to treating the states as laboratories for new ideas, as long as the federal government enforces minimum standards.)

I once asked a Wyden aide whether the senator ever showed signs of despair at the increasingly toxic climate. "You know," the aide replied, "I've been trying to figure the guy out for about six years now and I honestly think that while the stuff that goes on here makes the rest of us tired, angry and cynical, it just makes him that much more determined to find a way to fix it. Seriously, after taking a three-year beating trying to push bipartisan health reform, he walks into my office and says, 'Great, now we're going to do bipartisan tax reform.' I admire the hell out of him for it, but sometimes I want to throw things at him."

When I reached him in Oregon the other day, Wyden was preparing to fly up to Alaska to see if he and Lisa Murkowski, a drill-baby-drill Republican senator, could work through the gridlock on energy policy.

For evidence that legislative odd-coupling can be a thankless exercise, let's return to Wyden's attempt to tackle Medicare.

Last year Wyden and Ryan held a news conference to release their plan. It would leave Medicare intact for anyone 55 and over, but give the next wave of retirees a menu of options including traditional Medicare and private insurance plans that would compete in local auctions. (The system resembles the insurance exchanges envisioned in the Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare.) By introducing a measure of choice and competition Wyden hoped to prod health care providers toward more efficient practices and reap savings that could be used to ensure the long-term survival of Medicare.

The Ryan-Wyden proposal tasked the federal government to enforce basic protections for the vulnerable. It made Medicare more progressive, by requiring that the wealthy pay higher premiums. But, as Wyden says, the plan "put Medicare on a budget," allowed to grow only 1 percent faster than G.D.P. unless Congress intervened.

Many in his own party saw this as sacrilege, or at least a slippery slope. Liberals complained that the plan, by diverting some beneficiaries into private plans, would weaken Medicare's power to bargain for lower prices. Wyden's response: "Folks, 10,000 people are going to turn 65 every day for the next 20 years. Those of us who care about protecting the Medicare guarantee, we're going to have to find a way to make some tough decisions."'re part of the problem.

Posted by at August 29, 2012 5:17 AM

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