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Max Baucus Takes Lead on Payroll Talks

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Updated: 10:37 p.m.

With little guidance from Democratic leaders, Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.) is trying on his own to come up with bipartisan agreements on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and an extension of unemployment benefits.

Baucus, the top Democrat on the conference committee to reconcile House and Senate payroll tax cut bills, has been in talks with Republicans on the possibility of including a pipeline provision in the conference report, and he surprised Democrats this week when he offered his own proposal on jobless benefits during a conference committee meeting.

With just three and a half weeks to resolve outstanding issues between the parties, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced Friday that leadership was working on its own legislation — a surprise to many Republicans and Democrats alike. And while staffers to Members on the conference committee wondered whether the panel is being taken seriously, the level of communication between Senate leaders and Baucus is also in question.

“There is a lot of chaotic back and forth, but it is all between the Democrats who can’t seem to decide what offer they will bring to the table and when,” a Republican aide said. “Leader Reid is saying one thing, and the Senate [Democratic] conferees are saying another.”

Democrats close to the committee insist there is no daylight between conferees and leaders, that they will unveil more offers in the coming days and that the “backup” plan announced by Reid is merely a strategic and political ploy.

One source also said Democratic conferees and some in leadership were looped in on the jobless benefits proposal before Baucus mentioned it last week.

But other Democratic sources said leaders have attempted to give conferees space to reach a deal. Those sources also said the announcement of a plan B on payroll indicated a lack of faith in Republicans on the conference committee and not lack of trust in the Democratic conferees.

If a deal is not reached by Feb. 29, payroll taxes will go up, unemployment benefits will lapse, and doctors who serve Medicare patients will see their reimbursements shrink dramatically.

Baucus announced in a conference committee hearing last week that Democrats would be presenting an offer on unemployment benefit reforms, which came as news to leadership staff. Several aides were caught off guard that an offer was even being made and were in the dark about its content.

Baucus — long a proponent for the Keystone XL pipeline — also has been engaged in ongoing talks with GOP Sens. John Hoeven (N.D.), Dick Lugar (Ind.) and David Vitter (La.), the three chief co-sponsors of a new Keystone bill that would authorize the project, which President Barack Obama rejected last month.

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