Robert Novak

Grassley pleaded for these amendments, particularly his own, in heated face-to-face encounters with Thomas. Not known for suffering fools gladly, Thomas rolled his eyes. Complaining that Grassley was "too gabby," Thomas informed the senator that he had scheduled a session with Ways and Means Republicans at high noon and would leave at that hour. When Grassley insisted on discussing his Iowa amendment, Thomas walked. But all the Senate amendments were eliminated.

That triggered a largely ignored but exceptional press conference by Grassley May 23 after the cleaned-up bill passed. "I would hope to educate Mr. Thomas on the relationship and the respect he should have for someone of equal rank," said the senator. "I've never walked out on him." A few days later, Grassley told me his comments were "all tongue-in-cheek. Nobody is going to educate Thomas." Reporters attending the press conference thought Grassley was deadly serious.

Thomas declined a chance to shoot back at Grassley, but was steaming over a private letter by President Bush supporting Grassley on his Iowa hospital problem. Eliminated from this bill, the issue will come up again in the Medicare fight. That sets the scene for the next tumultuous collision between The Mailman and The Farmer.

The confrontation is more complicated on this issue. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Senate's only physician, feels passionately about health issues and may eclipse Grassley in this area. In the House, Speaker Dennis Hastert has specialized in health care and is deeply involved with Thomas and Rep. Billy Tauzin, whose Energy and Commerce Committee shares jurisdiction. Furthermore, neither Hastert nor Frist is happy with the Bush administration's approach. The president is finding that making laws is less bloody but even more difficult than making war.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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