WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 (UPI) -- Sen. John Breaux, D-La., a leading centrist on Capitol Hill, said Monday he will retire at the end of his term, which will be a big loss for healthcare policy.
Breaux, 59, has been a key player in Medicare legislation over the years, not only because of his 35-year tenure in Congress or his committee appointments, but also because he works both sides of the political aisle with force and finesse.
The moderate Democrat is senior member of the Finance Committee and has served on Finance's Health Care subcommittee.
Hugely popular in Louisiana, The Shreveport Times wrote of Breaux in a March 1997 editorial: "Instead of indulging in the partisan, divisive ideological politics that has characterized recent years, Breaux has sought to build bridges between Democrats and Republicans and is widely respected on both sides of the aisle."
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, said Breaux, the ranking Democrat on the committee, has been "a moderating voice in his political party and he has fought for reasonable, middle-ground solutions to difficult problems."
Breaux recently said his next challenge would be to use his centrist position to forge a long-term plan for dealing with the nation's uninsured.
"I'm not leaving today," he said in a statement Monday. "There is still a lot to get done this Congress. We have to get the energy bill passed, and I want to get started on legislation for the 40 million Americans who have no health insurance."
Breaux's ideas on the uninsured are not dissimilar to his ideas on Medicare. For the uninsured he supports combining private health plans with a government mandate for all Americans to have insurance, offering a government subsidy and tough requirements on businesses that do not now offer health benefits to employees to share part of the financial burden. The plan speaks to Republican concerns about a new, huge entitlement program while also creating a safety net for America's poorest uninsured, guaranteeing them coverage.
Breaux admitted it was not a plan that would be accomplished in a year or two but perhaps the workings could come together in five years or so.
Breaux's ability to meld the private sector and government entitlements became evident when he was a key player and co-chair of the 1997 National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, convened by President Bill Clinton to reform the program and bring to it prescription drug coverage.
Then as now, Breaux supported a concept of premium support -- which this year was reworked by House Republicans and got such a bad name during the Medicare prescription drug bill negotiations. The Senate version of the Medicare bill passed in June, for which Breaux helped forge bipartisan agreement, did not contain any elements of premium support.
Breaux was named statutory chairman of the 1997 bipartisan commission, while Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif. -- a chief architect of the House Medicare bill passed this June -- was administrative commission chair. Bobby Jindahl, who ran Louisiana's public healthcare system, was executive director of the commission.
Thomas and Breaux came up with a plan based on the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which covers federal workers. It set a government subsidy and gave seniors a choice of plans, including traditional Medicare, allowing them to pay extra for more comprehensive coverage than the traditional Medicare package provided.
The Clinton administration balked and in 1999 exerted political pressure that ultimately killed the bipartisan commission proposal, but Breaux reached across the aisle again in 2001 and teamed up with Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., basically to rework the commission plan into new legislation, which was supported by President George W. Bush.
After Congress passed the Medicare prescription drug conference report last month, Breaux again pushed beyond party lines in supporting it even when fellow Democrats, such as Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota would not.
"There are some Democrats who did not want this bill to pass simply for the fact that it may give President Bush an opportunity to sign a Medicare reform bill and I think that's wrong. I mean, we ought to be concerned not about which party benefits and which party loses but whether we can do something for the 40 million seniors who desperately wanted us to move on prescription drugs which is what we ultimately did," Breaux told ABC's "This Week" news program in late November.
Breaux's retirement was not entirely unexpected, but it will create a void in the health policy arena -- which the recent Medicare debate has shown is fraught with partisan bickering. That void will be difficult to fill as the next big debate on Capitol Hill -- covering the uninsured -- begins in earnest.
Ellen Beck covers healthcare policy for UPI Science News. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org