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.
“Absolutely. Been talking to him all the way through, and he’s been great about talking about bipartisan ideas and working on Keystone, and he’s supportive of the project, so it’s just about figuring out how best to do it,” Hoeven said of Baucus.
He added that the two have talked about using the payroll conference report as a vehicle for any pipeline measure they devise, but he noted other vehicles, such as a highway and infrastructure bill, also are being discussed.
“Listening isn’t negotiating,” one Baucus aide said. “Getting Keystone done is a big priority, but not at the expense of ensuring hardworking Americans’ taxes don’t go up. We have serious concerns that injecting Keystone in these talks could jeopardize both important policies. We will continue to look for a path forward on Keystone that can succeed.”
Multiple Republican sources also indicated that Baucus has been engaged in negotiations.
The Montana Democrat was heavily involved in the first version of the pipeline measure that ended up in the two-month extension passed in December. According to sources who track the pipeline issue, Baucus authored a provision that would ensure that the federal authorization of the pipeline does not alter which surrounding lands are under state or federal jurisdiction. It’s also no secret that the issue could play well for Montana’s junior Senator, Jon Tester (D), who is facing a tough re-election battle this cycle.
However, Republicans had been shying away from including the pipeline in the payroll tax cut extension. The House GOP openly discussed putting the pipeline provision in a pending highway bill, but as of late last week, the measure was not included. That Baucus is both the head of the payroll tax conference committee and engaged in the pending bill could complicate matters should he choose to exert his authority on one project to include the other.
“It’s the Max Baucus way,” one top Democrat said of Baucus’ penchant for charting a course that doesn’t match with Democratic leaders’ political aims.
“When you negotiate with Sen. Baucus, from our side, it’s always like, ‘Are you negotiating with Sen. Baucus or are you negotiating with Senate Democrats?’” another Republican aide said.
The pipeline issue just accentuates a growing frustration surrounding the conference committee proceedings. The panel has not addressed the most controversial parts of the original House legislation: how to pay for it and sweeping unemployment insurance reforms. The full Democratic side of the conference has not been meeting or talking regularly as a large group, but private conversations on a smaller scale happen frequently, according to sources.
On Friday, Reid said top Democrats are working on a backup plan, but he declined to discuss details. “If we have to put it forward, we will,” Reid said.
The move provoked an immediate response from House Republican leaders, who are trying to gain some sort of leverage in the negotiations, after badly losing the debate over a two-month extension in December.
“It would seem those energies could be better directed toward the conference negotiations themselves, in which Senate Democrats have not actually presented a full plan,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said. “You can’t have a ‘backup plan’ if you haven’t offered anything to back up.”
This version updates the print version to note that some Democrats knew about Sen. Max Baucus' jobless benefits proposal before he mentioned it last week.