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Matt Yglesias says blame Max Baucus for the difficulty progressives are having right now in mobilizing behind healthcare reform because we don't have a bill yet to mobilize behind, just a nebulous outline that we're calling "reform."

But if you can believe today's New York Times report Jed posted earlier, Baucus didn't necessarily get here by himself. It would seem his ally and former chief of staff Jim Messina, deputy White House chief of staff, might have helped along the way.

Messina is a Western states whiz kid, an Idahoan who went to college in Montana, has worked on the Hill, helped Tester get elected, and eventually became Baucus's chief of staff and close friend, almost a son to him. The rumor among political types in Montana is that it was precisely Messina's ties to Baucus and to all the former Baucus staffers involved in industry that put him the White House and on the negotiating team for healthcare reform.

So back to the agreement with the drug industry which Messina affirmed today for the NYT.

Mr. Tauzin said the administration had approached him to negotiate. "They wanted a big player to come in and set the bar for everybody else," he said. He said the White House had directed him to negotiate with Senator Max Baucus, the business-friendly Montana Democrat who leads the Senate Finance Committee.

Mr. Tauzin said the White House had tracked the negotiations throughout, assenting to decisions to move away from ideas like the government negotiation of prices or the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada. The $80 billion in savings would be over a 10-year period. "80 billion is the max, no more or less," he said. "Adding other stuff changes the deal."

After reaching an agreement with Mr. Baucus, Mr. Tauzin said, he met twice at the White House with Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff; Mr. Messina, his deputy; and Nancy-Ann DeParle, the aide overseeing the health care overhaul, to confirm the administration’s support for the terms.

"They blessed the deal," Mr. Tauzin said. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House was not bound by any industry deals with the Senate or the White House.

But, Mr. Tauzin said, "as far we are concerned, that is a done deal." He said, "It’s up to the White House and Senator Baucus to follow through.

The first question this raises is whether the supposedly politically savvy Messina and Emanuel thought they could actually get away with playing Billy Tauzin, of all people. This is too cute by far, and it was inevitable that Tauzin was going to go public with the deal if he thought they were going to renege.

Where does that leave the other four committee chairs? If the House wasn't bound by this industry deal, presumably the Senate HELP committee wasn't either. Could it explain why so much focus has been on Baucus's committee, why he's been able to drag this out, miss deadline after deadline, continue to follow the fool's errand of a "bipartisan" deal? Is Tauzin right in saying that this is "up to the White House and Senator Baucus"? As Jed pointed out, the ability of the government to negotiate drug prices is critical to actually cutting costs.

But it's got to lead to a larger question--how much of this has the White House turned over to Baucus and industry? It's a question that Democrats in the House, particularly, have.

The pressure from Mr. Tauzin to affirm the deal offers a window on the secretive and potentially risky game the Obama administration has played as it tries to line up support from industry groups typically hostile to government health care initiatives, even as their lobbyists pushed to influence the health measure for their benefit.

In an interview on Wednesday, Representative Raul M. Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who is co-chairman of the House progressive caucus, called Mr. Tauzin’s comments "disturbing."

"We have all been focused on the debate in Congress, but perhaps the deal has already been cut," Mr. Grijalva said. "That would put us in the untenable position of trying to scuttle it."

He added: "It is a pivotal issue not just about health care. Are industry groups going to be the ones at the table who get the first big piece of the pie and we just fight over the crust?"

Fighting this hard for a Baucus bill would be at best self-defeating. Cuz here's what we'd be getting.

The emerging Finance Committee bill would shave about $100 billion off the projected trillion-dollar cost of the legislation over the next decade and eventually provide coverage to 94 percent of Americans, according to participants in the talks. It would expand Medicaid, crack down on insurers, abandon the government insurance option that President Obama is seeking and, for the first time, tax health-care benefits under the most generous plans. Backers say the bill would also offer the only concrete plan before Congress for reining in the skyrocketing cost of federal health programs over the long term.

The bottom line is we need to know what we're fighting for, and it ain't "co-ops" and cuts to federal health programs when private insurers and drug companies continue to earn astronomical profits.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Thu Aug 06, 2009 at 02:06 PM PDT.

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