Washington, D.C. — Not long after arriving in Washington, D.C. in 2007, Sen. John Barrasso was showing his children around his new workplace when he bumped into one of his better-known colleagues. As the Wyoming Republican later described the episode to a friend, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy could not have been more gracious, inviting the trio into his office and presenting Barrasso with a painting by his own hand. Barrasso was thrilled by his encounter with the legendary Democrat, who died in 2009. “To John this was complete catnip because he loves politics so much,” recalled the friend, NBC News correspondent and Wyoming native Pete Williams. “He’s always had this, I don’t know, slightly wide-eyed, ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ kind of attitude about Washington and politics and government.”
The description is a good one as far as it goes. By many accounts, Barrasso has had his eye on the Capitol since his modest childhood in Pennsylvania, when his family made a ritual of trekking there every four years for the presidential inauguration. “I don’t think he’s ever been happier than he is right now,” Williams said. “He just loves the Senate.”
But Barrasso is no political innocent.
The Casper orthopedic surgeon who first ran for office as a pragmatic, pro-choice conservative in the mold of former Sen. Alan Simpson has since swung hard to the right. On the national stage, he is perhaps best known for his sharp attacks on the Affordable Care Act, the comprehensive healthcare law passed last year after months of acrimonious debate. But he also has emerged as an important voice on environmental matters, almost invariably on the side of industry. Over the last four years, the 58-year-old lawmaker has moved from accepting the inevitability of climate-change legislation to openly challenging the science behind it, and he recently signed on to a bill — introduced in the Senate by fellow Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi — that would repeal a law phasing out incandescent bulbs in favor of energy-saving fluorescent varieties. The original law was signed in 2007 by President George W. Bush. (“These new bulbs, they’re not even made in America,” Barrasso complained to a Chicago talk-radio host, adding, “I’m from Wyoming. Our approach is, leave us alone.”)
Barrasso is now so faithful to today’s conservative orthodoxy that an analysis of his 2010 voting record by the American Conservative Union earned him a perfect score of 100; a ranking of Senate conservatives by the National Journal shows him tied for first place with seven others. He had backpedaled on abortion even before he came to Washington.
Barrasso’s zeal for partisan combat — including, at times, a breezy disregard for the facts — has surprised even some admirers. For example, during a Senate floor speech in July 2009, he cited a study by an insurance company subsidiary to misleadingly claim that 119 million Americans would lose their private coverage under the Democrats’ healthcare plan. He also said his Casper practice didn’t turn away uninsured patients, but failed to mention that the office has to charge its insured patients more in order to cover the cost of serving the uninsured.
But he is hardly alone in adjusting his politics to the tenor of the times, especially since last year’s midterm elections, when some traditional Republicans — such as Utah Sen. Robert Bennett — lost seats to more conservative candidates backed by the insurgent Tea Party movement. “I see a senator with his moistened finger up to the wind,” said Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University, in discussing Barrasso. “The ghost of Bob Bennett haunts all mountain state Republicans.”
For now he has little reason to worry. In January, the Public Policy Polling firm reported that Barrasso and Enzi were “the two most popular senators we’ve ever polled on,” with constituent approval ratings of 69 percent and 63 percent, respectively. “The biggest reason for their eye-popping numbers is the partisan lean of the state — Republican senators ought to be pretty popular in a place where more than 60% of voters are Republicans,” the firm said in a blog posting on the poll results. “But they also both have approval numbers in the mid-30s with Democrats, which is a good deal above average crossover support, and they have good numbers with independents as well.”
Barrasso’s strong numbers reflect his careful attention to Wyoming, to which he returns every weekend, and especially his attention to its all-important energy industry. With seats on two key committees — Energy and Natural Resources and Environment and Public Works — he is well situated to look out for energy interests, which have rewarded him with generous campaign donations. From 2005 to 2010, Barrasso received $179,000 from oil and gas producers and $20,350 from Foundation Coal, according to federal election data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Barrasso recently moved up to the second-highest minority rank on the energy committee, replacing Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina). He has not let his fiscal conservatism dampen his enthusiasm for coal subsidies — usually in the form of tax breaks, such as tax-exempt bonding and loan guarantees for coal facilities which cost taxpayers billions.
“I think he’s earned all the praise that he gets in the state of Wyoming,” said Bill Schilling, president of the conservative Wyoming Business Alliance. “He’s an extraordinarily hard worker, very high energy, almost a brilliant command of the issues.” In particular, Schilling credits Barrasso with developing an “emotional connection” to the three industries — minerals, ranching and tourism — that are the mainstays of Wyoming’s economy. “He exhibits great concern for an awful lot of people from many walks of life,” Schilling said. “I’ve come to the conclusion he is the real deal.”
In Washington, meanwhile, Barrasso’s star continues to rise. With his rimless glasses and personable doctor’s demeanor, he is a natural for television and appears frequently on Fox News, whose conservative hosts are happy to give him a forum for his broadsides against the Obama administration. Last fall, little more than three years after Roll Call newspaper named him as the Senate’s least-powerful member, he was elected vice-chairman of the Senate leadership conference, the fifth-highest rank in the Senate GOP hierarchy. “Sen. Barrasso is a very smart and capable senator and is a highly valued member of our leadership team,” Don Stewart, deputy chief of staff to Sen. GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), said in a statement relayed by McConnell’s spokesman. “He’s a strong voice at the leadership table on Western issues, but his background as an orthopedic surgeon has made him one of the most knowledgeable and influential senators on the subject of health care.”
Barrasso is a tall, youthful-looking man with dark hair, sharp features and a lean physique that he maintains with frequent running. Born in Reading, Pa., he often has referred to the influence of his father, a cement-finisher with a ninth-grade education and an abiding sense of patriotism that he passed along to his son. “When I was eight my dad took me to John Kennedy’s inauguration,” he told National Review Online in 2009. “It has been a family tradition for us. We were at Kennedy’s, Johnson’s, all the way through. Our respect for the country and love of the country was such that our family came to every inauguration, no matter which party won.”
As a teenager, Barrasso worked summer jobs on construction sites, but he clearly had his eye on bigger things. He traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in Presidential Classroom, a civics program for promising high schoolers, and returned to the capital as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, where he also earned his medical degree in 1978. Five years later, after a residency at Yale-New Haven Hospital, Barrasso moved to Wyoming with his wife at the time, Linda Nix. The couple had two children and later divorced.
Barrasso worked at Casper Orthopedic Associates, a thriving private practice where he treated all manner of breaks, sprains and tears, many caused by “car wrecks and horse crashes,” according to founding partner John Bailey who, like Barrasso, was chief of staff at Wyoming Medical Center for a time. “He was a good physician,” Bailey recalled in a phone interview. “He cared a lot about the people that he took care of. He was cautious in that he did what he felt he could do safely. He sought consultation when he had questions.”
Barrasso declined to be interviewed for this article, so it wasn’t possible to ask him why he chose to begin his career in Wyoming. His former wife also declined comment. “That’s something I’d like to stay away from,” Nix said apologetically when reached at home in Casper recently. “We have a really good relationship.” But others who knew him at the time speculate that political ambition may have played a role in Barrasso’s move to the state. “I personally had some suspicion that he thought Wyoming might be a place that he could get into politics at some point in time, though I don’t think he ever told me that,” Bailey said.
Another friend, Bob Tarantola, recalls meeting Barrasso at a party by Alcova Reservoir in 1983. Tarantola was standing at the water’s edge when the young doctor “came up and put his hand out and said, `Hi, I’m John Barrasso,’ and wanted to get to know me right there,” said Tarantola, an energy lobbyist in Wyoming. “It was clear to me that he wanted to meet as many people as soon as he could as soon as he got here and he wanted to make Wyoming his home.”
Barrasso fell in with a lively circle of well-educated young professionals, including Dick High, the editor of the Casper Star-Tribune at the time, and Williams, the NBC television correspondent, who started his career in Casper. Barrasso and Williams often skied and played tennis together and attended an annual New Year’s bash at a ranch owned by mutual friends in southeastern Wyoming. “It doesn’t often come through, but he has a very playful sense of humor,” said Williams. “The other thing is, he’s very, very bright.”
Barrasso lived unpretentiously in Casper, where his most conspicuous indulgence was a red Mazda Miata convertible, according to Bailey. In the early 2000s, he began dating Bobbi Brown, a Thermopolis native then working as former Sen. Craig Thomas’ state director. The two married in 2008. They live in a house on Casper Mountain with lovely views and an estimated market value of $284,582, according to county tax records. Barrasso’s net worth is between $2.9 and $9.1 million, much of it in stock index funds, according to Senate financial disclosure records analyzed by Opensecrets.org.
Barrasso established his public profile soon after he moved to Casper, when he was recruited by Williams, then the news director of KTWO-TV and Radio, to comment on health-related topics. “I think he was sort of interested in broadcasting,” recalled Williams. “He just seemed to have a good way of explaining health issues.” Barrasso’s commentary — with its signature line, “helping you care for yourself” — became a regular feature of the Wyoming airwaves. Williams also enlisted him to help out with the station’s annual Jerry Lewis telethon to raise money for muscular dystrophy research. Williams took a job as a congressional staffer in Washington for Wyoming Congressman Dick Cheney. He later would serve as Pentagon spokesman when Cheney became Defense Secretary in the first Bush administration. Barrasso stepped into Williams’ shoes as M.C. of the telethon. Eventually he became known on KTWO-TV broadcasts as “Wyoming’s Doctor.”
In some respects, he was “Wyoming’s Doctor,” treating rodeo cowboys and serving as medical director for Wyoming Health Fairs, a program of free medical screening. He also wrote a newspaper column on health-related issues and served as chief of staff at Wyoming Medical Center.
“When it came to media things in Wyoming, John Barrasso was everywhere,” said Bill Sniffin, a newspaper columnist and former publisher of the Lander Journal who has known the senator for years. “He’s never boring. He’s sort of Wyoming’s Sanjay Gupta… He’s very, very accessible for the electronic media.”
Barrasso made his first bid for elected office in 1996, when he sought the Republican nomination in the race to succeed Simpson, a moderate who supported abortion rights, in the U.S. Senate. At the time, Barrasso also characterized himself as “pro-choice,” and — initially at least — was thought to be the front runner. Then Mike Enzi entered the race. “The pro-life wing didn’t like John because he was pro-choice, at that time,” recalled Bill Maiers, a longtime Republican activist in Casper. “So they went and got Enzi to run. And they worked hard for him.”
In the end, Barrasso narrowly lost to Enzi, who stressed his anti-abortion credentials and went on to defeat Democrat Kathy Karpan in the general election. As Roll Call put it, Barrasso’s “perception as a moderate was his ultimate undoing.”
Barrasso would not make the same mistake twice. Elected to the Wyoming Senate in 2002, Barrasso earned an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and improved his standing among abortion opponents by sponsoring an unsuccessful bill to treat the killing of a pregnant woman as a double homicide. In 2007, Thomas died of leukemia and Barrasso sought appointment to the empty seat, noting in his application for the job that he had “voted for prayer in schools, against gay marriage and [for] legislation to protect the sanctity of life.”
To those familiar with Wyoming politics, there was nothing especially surprising about Barrasso’s hard swerve to the right. “The 1996 race served as a light switch for John,” said Tom Sansonetti, a prominent Cheyenne attorney and former Justice Dept. official who also sought Thomas’s old seat. “It wasn’t something that occurred over time. He saw right there and then that a moderate Republican is going to come close but finish second… By 1997, John was the conservative that he is today.”
When asked if such a move might appear cynical, Sansonetti said no. “It happens all the time,” he said. “That’s politics. If you want to win, you’ve got to get to a majority… Or you can stand on principle and lose.”
In the end, then-Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat who under state law had to name a Republican to Thomas’ empty seat in 2007, chose Barrasso over Sansonetti and Cynthia Lummis, though he has never publicly explained his reasons for doing so. His announcement, in any case, was notable for its lack of enthusiasm. “There are many factors that went into this decision, and it was the sum of these factors that led me to this choice,” Freudenthal said at the time. “While I don’t intend to indulge the speculation on why I made this decision, I will say that I hope I made the right choice.” Once he had Thomas’ former seat by appointment from the governor, Barrasso easily won a later special election to the seat in 2008. (If Freudenthal suffers any buyer’s remorse, he isn’t saying. “I am enjoying a self-imposed ‘time-out,’ of indeterminate length, from Wyoming political life,” the former governor, who now teaches at the University of Wyoming law school, said in an email. “That includes offering public comments or observations about people and/or issues.”)
After President Obama took office, Barrasso began to make a name for himself in Washington as debate heated up over the contours of the administration’s plan for universal health insurance. In regular appearances on Fox and elsewhere, he warned that “Obamacare” would drive up health care costs and compromise quality. He disparaged the core element of the administration plan — the so-called individual mandate, which requires anyone who can afford it to purchase basic health insurance — as unconstitutional. Barrasso argued that the best way to improve healthcare access was to lower its costs, which he said could be accomplished by promoting competition among insurers and limiting medical malpractice claims. “The Republican party would be smart to get Barrasso on TV more often,” said the online edition of National Review. “He sounds as trustworthy as your own doctor when he explains why government does not belong in the health-care industry.”
Party leaders took note: By mid-2009, Barrasso was hosting the “Senate Doctors’ Show” on YouTube with Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican and fellow physician, and appearing regularly on the Senate floor to offer a “doctor’s second opinion” on the law (diagnosis: a “Washington takeover” that will “put government in charge of health care and put bureaucrats in between patients and their doctors.”)
The crowning moment for Barrasso came in February of last year, when McConnell chose him as lead-off hitter for the Republicans in a televised “healthcare summit” with Obama at the White House. In a pointed exchange that highlighted the gulf between the two sides, Barrasso suggested that Americans could help lower healthcare costs across the board by insuring only for “catastrophic” needs, paying out of pocket for routine medical costs. Obama noted that senators earn more than $170,000 a year and asked, “Would you feel the same way if you were making $40,000?” Barrasso did not answer directly, although he did note that “having a high-deductible plan … is an option for members of Congress and federal employees.”
“That’s right,” Obama replied, “because members of Congress get paid $176,000 a year.”
On the environment, Barrasso initially struck a moderate tone. Picking up where his late predecessor left off, he sponsored the Wyoming Range Legacy Act to protect most of the 100-mile-long mountain range south of Jackson from further oil and gas leasing. In deference to oil and gas interests, Barrasso insisted, as Thomas had, that the legislation honor existing mineral leases that potentially could affect up to 10 percent of the 1.2 million-acre national forest. Still, conservation groups rejoiced when the law passed in 2008, and gave Barrasso much of the credit. “We enjoyed the heck out of working with him,” said Trout Unlimited’s Tom Reed, who helped sell Barrasso on the protection plan by driving with him to the crest of the range in a pickup truck. “The land kind of spoke for itself,” Reed said. “The senator realized that there needed to be a little bit of balance.”
Barrasso had initially signaled a pragmatic approach to climate change. Soon after he had been appointed to the Senate — in an October 2007 speech in Jackson at a climate and energy summit co-sponsored by the University of Wyoming’s Energy Resources — Barrasso warned energy producers of the inevitability of legislation to curb greenhouse gases linked to global warming, and urged them to get on board. This was essentially the same thing that Freudenthal was saying at the time. “I had an old medical professor, Dr. Milt Davis,” Barrasso recalled in his speech. “He said, ‘You never want to be diagnosed with mural dyslexia.’ I asked him what he meant. He said, ‘Mural dyslexia is the inability to read the handwriting on the wall.’”
He continued, “You can harbor doubts about the science, but the political and market realities are under no such illusion — the writing is on the wall. From my point of view we, in Wyoming, can be part of that discussion, play a significant part in blending solutions, or be forced to accept the changes that others will attempt to put upon us.”
This, too, was Freudenthal’s position.
Barrasso emphasized a technological fix, sponsoring a bill to award prizes to scientists who came up with the best ways to soak up existing carbon from the atmosphere. “I believe overlooked in the debate are greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere,” he said in a statement on May 20, 2008. “Those are the gases contributing to the warming of the planet. The best science tells us it is a factor.”
But Barrasso soon changed his tune. He strongly opposed the so-called cap-and-trade bill, which would have established market mechanisms for limiting carbon emissions. He said it would impose too many costs on businesses and consumers and in any case was pointless in the absence of similar efforts by China and India. In a July 2009 interview with Environment & Energy Daily, he described himself as “legislatively … on the same page” as Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who has called climate-change science “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”
The cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate in 2009 and Barrasso, Inhofe and others turned their attention to blocking what they called a “backdoor attempt” by the administration to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Their strategy included sharp attacks on the scientific consensus on climate change. In late 2009, Barrasso and other Republicans called on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to investigate allegations, based on leaked emails, that climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in Britain had manipulated data to support their view that human activity is warming the planet. The same group also accused the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of relying on the “corrupted data” to support its conclusions on climate change. Joining in calls for investigations of the so-called climategate scandal were conservative media and some energy companies, including Peabody Energy, a major Wyoming coal producer.
As it turned out, there was no scandal. Some scientists may have been sloppy and indiscreet, but two independent inquiries in Britain — and one by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — found no evidence of deliberate wrongdoing. And last year, following a comprehensive review of climate data, the National Academy of Sciences declared: “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for — and in many cases is already affecting — a broad range of human and natural systems.” That is essentially the same conclusion drawn in 2007 by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose work Barrasso has repeatedly disparaged in recent years.
Barrasso was undeterred by the NAS report. On January 31, he introduced a far-reaching bill that would block federal agencies from regulating greenhouse gases and preempt lawsuits aimed at doing the same. “This legislation puts the brakes on Washington’s efforts to institute job-crushing regulations,” he said in an op-ed (published at WyoFile and USA Today) at the time. “It is a rebuke that unelected bureaucrats badly need.” The language of the bill played down the human contribution to climate change, asserting that “the climate of the Earth is dynamic, and changes in climate are caused by a complex combination of factors.”
‘Hidden tax on sick people’
In the healthcare debate, Barrasso has shown a similar willingness to sidestep awkward facts. For example, he often has cited his experience as a physician in arguing the problems of the uninsured are not as dire as Democrats claim. “People receive care,” he said in a March 17 appearance on Fox News. “My partners and I took care of every patient, regardless of their ability to pay, and we’re continuing to do that.”
But Barrasso leaves out a vital part of the equation. As Bailey, his partner, explained it, the Casper practice does indeed provide care to anyone who needs it, at least for those with acute needs. But the only way it can afford to do so, Bailey said, is by charging higher fees to insured patients. “We’ve got a lot of insured people, and we also don’t have a managed-care environment here, so we’re still basically a fee-for-service type of medical practice,” he said. “So what that does is allow us to charge more for the people who have insurance to take care of the people who don’t have any insurance.”
That, in turn, causes insurers to raise their premiums, driving up the very healthcare costs that Barrasso says he wants to contain. “I call that a hidden tax on sick people,” said Bailey, who considers the new healthcare law imperfect but a step in the right direction. “John and I maybe diverge a little bit on this.”
An even more important point, perhaps, relates to the quality of care. Notwithstanding Barrasso’s claim that care is available to anyone who needs it, a multitude of studies have found that those who lack insurance are sicker and seek treatment later and less often than those who have insurance. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported last September, for example, that more than half of uninsured adults “have no regular source of healthcare” and are nearly twice as likely to delay or do without the care they need as those who have health insurance. So uncompensated care doesn’t solve the problem of the uninsured. “Yes, it’s nice that providers are providing uncompensated care,” said Bradley Herring, a healthcare economist at Johns Hopkins University. “But in the end, uncompensated care is really no substitute for having real health insurance coverage.”
Barrasso made a claim similarly based on a selective use of facts when he attacked Democratic plans to augment the nation’s private-insurance system with government insurance. Democrats said the so-called public option would be just that, an option, and that people who were happy with their private coverage would be able to keep it. But in a floor speech in July 2009, Barrasso disputed that assertion, citing an estimate by the Lewin Group that 119 million Americans — more than a third of the population — would lose their private coverage under the Democratic plan. As PoliticalCorrection.org and others have noted, he did not disclose that the Lewin consulting firm is a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, one of the country’s biggest insurers (the Lewin Group says it is editorially independent). Nor did he mention that the estimate was a worst-case projection based on the adoption of a Medicare-style plan that would be open to anyone, an approach that never came close to being adopted as a mainstream position. In the end, of course, the law included no public option.
Barrasso’s uncompromising brand of politics has puzzled some who expected a less-confrontational approach when he first went to Washington. “I didn’t view him as sort of an arch conservative,” said Sniffin, the Lander newspaper publisher, who likes Barrasso and was pleased when he was appointed to Thomas’ old seat. But within two years he would write in his column, “Not sure why, and we didn’t see it coming, but Sen. Barrasso has become one of the most partisan people in the Senate. It seems he rarely works with folks across the aisle and seems to not care about working (with) Democrats at all. He has absorbed in full the total religion of the conservative side of the national Republican Party and there is little doubt where he will vote when it comes to partisan issues.”
Of course, as Sniffin acknowledged in the same column, “Being archconservative will not hurt him with his constituents.” Bailey, the Casper orthopedic surgeon, made a similar point in reference to the healthcare debate. “I think that is perhaps his role at this point in time. Whether he deeply believes in his heart of hearts that that’s right, I don’t know that.” Asked whether he had been surprised by Barrasso’s politics in the Senate, Bailey replied, “Perhaps,” then noted that Barrasso was a fan of author Robert Caro, whose biography of Lyndon Johnson, “Master of the Senate,” describes Johnson’s mastery of political triangulation. “There’s a lot of complexity to Lyndon Johnson and there may be a similar kind of complexity to John Barrasso,” Bailey said.
Like Johnson, Barrasso is said to be a master of one-on-one politics that begins with careful attention to his constituents. Although there is no direct flight between Washington and Casper — travelers typically fly through Denver — Barrasso makes a point of returning home every weekend. He travels widely in the state, where he is known for dispensing commemorative coins to veterans and hosting conference calls with voters known as “telephone town halls.”
During a meeting with city managers in Gillette a few years ago, Barrasso “must have recognized six or seven folks in the audience, with detailed references to the last time he and the person he was referring to were together,” recalled Rob Hurless, a former publisher of the Casper Star-Tribune and one-time energy adviser to Freudenthal who attended the meeting. “It was pretty impressive, and whether you like him or not you have to give him credit for great organization, great memory and a very potent display of political acumen.”
Barrasso’s genial style does not necessarily extend to the press. His spokesperson in Washington, Emily Lawrimore, turned down WyoFile’s request to interview the senator. When approached in person a few weeks later as he got off the Senate subway in the basement of the Capitol building, Barrasso briskly walked away, saying over his shoulder, “Call my office.” WyoFile followed that advice, but Lawrimore declined to answer questions on the senator’s behalf and did not respond to a follow-up email.
Barrasso is more accommodating when it comes to broadcast media, especially Fox News. Since January 2009, he has appeared 57 times on Fox, compared with 20 times on MSNBC and 10 times on CNN, according to his Senate website. He also appears regularly on KTWO television and other Wyoming broadcast outlets.
There is no mystery about his preference for Fox. In the run-up to the president’s State of the Union address, some Republicans and Democrats announced plans to sit together at the speech, as a way to express solidarity in the aftermath of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others, six of whom died, in Tuscon earlier that month. Barrasso, appearing on Fox, was asked if he would do the same. “Anyone can sit wherever they want,” he replied. “I`m going to sit on the Republican side, on the right side of the aisle.”
John Lancaster, a former reporter for the Washington Post, is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
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