“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.”