With Finance Chairman Max Baucus confirmed as the next ambassador to China, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is beginning to talk about his plans for his new gavel.
Senators voted 96-0 in favor of confirming Baucus to the post Thursday afternoon, praising the senior Montana Democrat for his efforts working with Republicans — some of which raised the ire of his own party over the years.
"On the Finance Committee, you can't sit back and throw stones. You have to roll up your sleeves, find common ground, and get the job done," said fellow Montanan Jon Tester. "Max's penchant for hard work and thoughtful, independent-minded leadership stems from another great Montanan he and I both admire: former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield."
"When I first ran for statewide office in 1973, no one knew me from Adam. I needed some advice. Sen. Mansfield told me if I wanted to run for Congress, it would take a lot of hard work and shoe leather," Baucus said in his farewell speech on the Senate floor. "I took his advice — literally."
And Baucus meant that literally, because he walked the entire length of the state.
Tester recalled Baucus meeting Mansfield, adding "for many Montanans of today ... Max connects us to Mike’s legacy as a champion for the greater good."
Wyden, who has served as chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, will assume the Finance chairmanship from the departing Baucus. Retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has taken a pass on the assignment.
Until Thursday, Wyden largely demurred from answering reporters' questions about the Finance job, since Baucus had yet to be confirmed.
"What an extraordinary honor. It feels like yesterday when I was co-director of the Oregon Gray Panthers," Wyden said. "This is an extraordinary honor and I've very appreciative of the majority leader — Sen. Reid — and our caucus for giving me this honor of serving."
The early departure of Baucus for the key diplomatic post comes before he was able to produce a complete product for the first overhaul of the tax code since 1986. Wyden will now take his best shot.
"Anybody who thinks that their tax reform proposal is the gospel, sent down from the heavens and is hereby going to be enacted into law doesn't know anything about tax reform. It is a huge challenge, and there is an old saying about tax reform that it is always, totally, completely impossible until 15 minutes before it comes together," he said.
Wyden has previously drafted tax overhauls with Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, as well as Republicans Dan Coats of Indiana and former Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.
"What I hope people, at least as they get into it will see is that what ... two Democrats and two Republicans have done is a concept that you can begin to discuss in a bipartisan way, because it's got bipartisan roots," Wyden said.
Wyden said he met with Baucus about business on the committee's agenda earlier this week, but he didn't provide too many specifics to reporters on the way forward or possible changes to committee rules and authorities. He did praise the staff work done by the Baucus Finance aides on the tax overhaul.
"Obviously, they've done a lot of very good work and I'm going to have to talk to my colleagues about that as well," Wyden said.
The Finance Committee has no shortage of work ahead, including the annual ritual of addressing lapsed tax code provisions that are usually bundled into what's known as "tax extenders" legislation , as well as trying to find a solution to the recurring problem of reduced payments to providers who treat Medicare payments.
Baucus and other relevant committee leaders in the House and Senate unveiled a "doc fix" policy proposal before the confirmation vote.
"For far too long, the doc fix has been an annual ritual for Congress. It's time to put that ritual to an end so the millions of seniors who rely on Medicare have greater security and greater access to their doctors," Finance ranking member Orrin G. Hatch of Utah said in a statement about that proposal. "I'm proud of this legislation. It not only fully repeals the broken sustainable growth rate formula, but puts in place real reforms that move Medicare away from a fee-for-service model that promotes greater spending to one that encourages better results."
After Baucus delivered his farewell remarks, Hatch said that he and Wyden have only spoken generally about the committee's agenda moving forward.
"He's been very loath to talk about it until he is made chairman of the committee," Hatch said.
The trade agenda is another key piece of Finance Committee business, with Republicans wanting President Barack Obama to put pressure on Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other Democrats to revive trade promotion authority. Reid has not minced words about his opposition the trade authority.
Wyden has supported "fast track" in the past, and he told reporters Thursday that he looked forward to discussions about bringing it back, but he did not seem to be in a rush.
"A lot has changed since the last TPA bill, the one that passed in 2002 that I voted for," Wyden said. "A lot of senators have come up and said global commerce has changed dramatically since 2002."
Wyden mentioned changes in the digital marketplace that have occurred since 2002 as one area that may require attention.
Wyden's ascension at Finance is one of several moves in the aftermath of Baucus' departure. In another switch, Louisiana Democrat Mary L. Landrieu will replace Wyden at the Energy panel .