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Gang Of Six: The Senator You Don't Know

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico is part of the bipartisan Gang of Six trying to reach a compromise on health-care overhaul. It's possible that you've barely heard of him. That's because he's a process man who shuns microphones and works behind the scenes to try to make deals.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook has this profile of the senator's role in the health- care debate.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Among the town hall meetings lawmakers held this summer, Senator Jeff Bingaman's were not notable. That's because they were well organized, cooperative and calm.

Ms. DELORES WALLER: Hi, Senator.

Senator JEFF BINGAMAN (Democrat, New Mexico): Hi, Delores.

Ms. WALLER: Thank you for your service.

Sen. BINGAMAN: Thank you.

SEABROOK: Delores Waller wants to know what are the toughest issues facing the so-called Gang of Six, the bipartisan group of senators working on the health-care bill. Bingaman is one of them.

Sen. BINGAMAN: You know, I would say that all of the Gang of Six are trying to find a way to come up with something that both - can enjoy the support of all six but that solves the basic problem of quality, affordable health care for all. So that much, we start out with.

SEABROOK: Though Bingaman is one of the three Democrats in the Gang of Six, he's hard to pin down. He was among the first senators to float the health- care co-op idea in place of a public option, and that makes liberals angry. But he was also the first of the Gang of Six to talk about bypassing Republicans altogether, and that makes conservatives angry.

Mr. HEATH HAUSSAMEN (NMPolitics.net): That's always how he's thinking.

SEABROOK: Heath Haussamen runs the New Mexico political site NMPolitics.net.

Mr. HAUSSAMEN: He tends to stay away from the flashy issues. He's always looking for, OK, rather than polarizing, where can we find common ground?

SEABROOK: Haussamen meets with Bingaman occasionally and says he's as unassuming back home as he is in the Senate.

Mr. HAUSSAMEN: The last time I met with him, we met at a Mexican restaurant in La Cruces. We showed up unannounced. You know, nobody knew he was coming; he didn't tell anyone: I'm Senator Bingaman. We just sat down at a table and ate.

SEABROOK: In Washington, Bingaman's known as a nuts and bolts guy - a legislator more than a politician. But if pushed, he will go the partisan route, though it seems to make him a little queasy. For example, that idea of bypassing Republicans, the one that he brought up first among the Gang of Six? Listen to how he talks to his constituents about it.

Sen. BINGAMAN: If we are unable to do it any other way, that is an option. It is a very difficult option to get implemented but clearly, I would support that if that's the only way we can…

(Soundbite of applause)

SEABROOK: Bingaman's focus on bipartisanship may sound like a political weakness to some, but it's also a trait found in many of the longest-serving, most lauded senators, including the late Ted Kennedy. Heath Haussamen says that might make Bingaman a pivotal figure in the coming weeks.

Mr. HAUSSAMEN: There's a lot of people who are saying health care's dead without Kennedy, things like that. And there are some in New Mexico who are saying Jeff Bingaman is the kind of guy who could make sure that it's not dead, who could step in and help fill some of the void that's left.

SEABROOK: Even if health care does pass, don't expect Senator Bingaman to be out in front of the cameras, popping open champagne bottles. He's just not that kind of guy.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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