As liberal protesters marched outside, Sen. Max Baucus sat down inside a San Francisco mansion for a dinner of chicken cordon bleu and a discussion of landmark health care legislation under consideration by his Senate Finance Committee.
At the table on May 26 were about 20 donors willing to fork over $10,000 or more to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, including executives of major insurance companies, hospitals and other health care firms.
"Most people there had an agenda; they wanted the ear of a senator and they got it," said Aaron Roland, a San Francisco health care activist who paid half price to attend the gathering. "Money gets you in the door. The only thing the other side can do is march around and protest outside."
As his committee has taken center stage in the battle over a health care overhaul, Baucus, D-Mont., the Finance Committee chairman, has emerged as a leading recipient of Senate campaign contributions from the hospitals, insurers and other medical interest groups hoping to shape the legislation to their advantage. Health-related companies and their employees gave Baucus' political committees nearly $1.5 million in 2007 and 2008, when he began holding hearings and making preparations for this year's debate.
Top health executives and lobbyists have continued to flock to the senator's often extravagant fundraising events in recent months. During a Senate break in late June, for example, Baucus hosted his 10th annual fly-fishing and golfing weekend in Big Sky, Mont., for a minimum donation of $2,500.
To avoid any appearance of favoritism, his aides say, Baucus quietly began refusing contributions from health care political action committees after June 1. But the policy does not apply to health care lobbyists or corporate executives, who continued to make donations, records show.
Baucus declined requests to comment.
The Montana senator's fundraising prowess underscores the enduring political strength of the health care lobby, which led all other sectors in donations to federal candidates in the last election cycle and has shifted its giving to Democrats as the party tightened its control on Congress.
The sector gave nearly $170 million to federal lawmakers in 2007 and 2008, with 54 percent going to Democrats, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Many of these contributions have been focused on Baucus, Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and other senators in the moderate camps of their respective parties, whose votes could prove crucial in a final health care reform deal, as well as the leaders of five key committees leading the debate.
But Baucus stands out for the rising tide of health care contributions to his campaign committee. Baucus collected $3 million from the health and insurance sectors from 2003 to 2008, data show. Less than 10 percent came from Montana.
Top out-of-state corporate contributors included Schering-Plough, New York Life Insurance, Amgen Inc. and Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Most of these companies, particularly major insurers, are strongly opposed to a public insurance option, which is favored by President Barack Obama and top House Democrats but has failed to get support so far from Baucus' committee.